'Dangerous' methods claim is questioned

30th January 1998 at 00:00
"Dangerous" teaching methods are being used on primary pupils, according to a controversial Channel 4 programme.

Last night's Dispatches highlighted research funded by the Gatsby Foundation which claims British children do less well at reading and writing than their European counterparts because they start formal schooling too young.

A second report, due to be published next week by British Telecom, also says social and communication skills for four and five-year-olds should take precedence over reading, writing and arithmetic.

Dispatches contrasted early-years teaching methods in four countries - Hungary, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany - where children score higher grades in international science and maths tests. In all four countries, children do not start formal schooling until the age of six or seven.

Dispatches gave a group of Hungarian inner-city seven-year-olds an arithmetic test. Half of them reached the top level of the paper compared to 18 per cent of the British children, despite having had two years less teaching.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment of Brunel University, said he watched with a "sense of mounting excitement". "Many children may be tasting failure and the early stages of disaffection almost as soon as they start school," he said.

Professor Ruth Merttens, director of the Hamilton Maths Project in Oxford, a pilot aimed at helping primary pupils, said she had a "natural antipathy" to the report and questioned both its "ethics and academic integrity". Although she admitted to having seen "plenty of inappropriate written work with very young children; copying out pages of 'sums' or writing with little or no attempt to 'make sense' of what is being written".

Alan Wells, director of the Basic Skills Agency, said many family numeracy and literacy projects were already using the communication methods both reports suggested.

He said: "It depends where you draw the line between, say, formal reading and literacy activities. We give books to nine-month-old babies. Of course we don't suggest teaching them to read, but an awareness and acceptance of books, particularly for boys, is essential."

The BT-sponsored report, Why Communication Matters in Education, was written by Angela Phillips of Goldsmiths' College.

She said: "In the context of a basic skills drive, speaking and listening may seem a bit of a soft option, the icing on the cake which can be added when the basic building blocks of reading, writing and arithmatic are in place.

"But to assume that is to misunderstand just how children learn. Communication skills are not so much the icing- more the raising agent."

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