HMI underlines the importance of reading

27th February 1998 at 00:00
Most teachers rate the importance of reading and most schools teach it well. But if the Government is right in its target setting and primaries as well as secondaries can double their previous rates of improvement over the next three years, reading must play a significant part.

That is for two reasons. The first obvious one is the central place reading occupies in primary classes, especially in the early years. The second is that, as has often been stated, skill at reading holds the key to success elsewhere in the curriculum. Without that basic facility all other learning is impeded, and therefore literacy, including if necessary what used to be called remedial work, has to be emphasised through the whole of the 5-14 programme and at Standard grade as well. How many pupils do badly in science exams because they cannot correctly interpret the question or set down a coherent answer?

The Inspectorate has now surveyed the two fundamental areas of primary teaching - mathematics and reading. This week's report brings no surprises. Despite the emphasis placed on reading, too many children still fall behind. The inspectors found that in one out of six schools half of the children had not reached level A by the end of primary 3. Early intervention measures have been shown to make a difference - optimistically a permanent one - and the Government has committed o24 million to let local authorities target schools where HMI found disturbing evidence.

A consistent and welcome message of this Government is that there can be no no-go areas. Just because a school has social problems, low standards will not be tolerated, nor teachers permitted to nurse low expectations. The rhetoric has to be supported by resources, and Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, reiterates that these will be made available when the national interest allows them to be released.

The reading report points out that reading skills and social levels do not automatically equate. Some schools with problems perform well, a few with favoured circumstances underscore. The aim of the targets is to group schools so that the high achievers and the underachievers both become clear. It would be interesting to see whether a primary's overall level of achievement, dependent on a batch of factors, correlates closely with its "score" in reading. If the premiss that reading holds the key to learning success is true, such an association is likely.

There are encouraging aspects to HMI's findings beyond the conclusion about general standards. Our schools, it appears, are not wracked by disputes about how to teach reading. Arguments south of the border about, for example, the role of phonics may seem arcane but if a teacher is concerned that they are not be adopting "best practice" their confidence must suffer. In Scotland, we have not fallen foul of reading faddists. A commonsense balance of approaches is the commonplace: HMI's checklist of effective teaching (page five) will be familiar in most classrooms.

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