Basics 'over-used' in Ulster

9th August 1996 at 01:00
Weak primary teachers in Northern Ireland over-use phonics, rely too much on whole-class teaching of mathematics and overload children with facts in science lessons, according to inspectors.

In England the Office for Standards in Education has championed a return to traditional methods - phonics, whole-class teaching and subjects rather than topics - but Northern Ireland's inspectors say it is dangerous to rely on them.

They warned that selection at 11, which is being promoted by the Conservatives, distorts the primary curriculum.

A report, based on 78 inspections of English, mathematics and science lessons in 1994-95, said the majority of lessons in English were purposeful, teaching approaches were often imaginative, and effective learning took place.

"In some classes, however, the work was over-directed by the teacher, the learning tasks often took insufficient account of the different abilities of the children.

"In the least effective practice, the diagnosis of reading difficulties was minimal and expectations were low. There was an over-emphasis on word recognition and phonics, with over-use of low-level worksheets which often required only a clerical response," said the report.

Maths teaching was generally sound or better, but children did not have enough opportunity to explore their own ideas or engage in investigative activities. In the best lessons teachers used different forms of organisation and set different tasks to meet the varied needs of pupils.

"In a minority of classes, however, almost all the work was organised for the whole class, with all the children required to undertake the same task. This approach did not meet well enough the needs of all the children; much of the work was too easy for the more able children and too difficult for the slow learners."

In science, there was too much emphasis on acquiring information - often just copying from the blackboard - rather than developing skills and understanding. Good teachers used a balance of instruction and participation by children, in pairs, groups and as a class. In less successful classes, inadequate attention was given to children's individual needs.

"There were too few opportunities for the children to discuss their ideas, to reflect on the structure of their writing, to experiment with a range of writing forms and to develop skills in organising, drafting and editing their own work," the inspectors said. The generally favourable report found "serious shortcomings" in almost all of the curriculum planning, with too little attention to processes in maths and science and too few links between the attainment targets in English.

Some schools relied on parents fund-raising to finance many of their additional resources, such as updating library stocks or providing science materials.

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