Inspector's dilemma

10th May 1996 at 01:00
Let us attribute to Chris Woodhead the best of motives. He is concerned about the teaching of reading in the nation's primary schools, particularly in the inner cities. He is frustrated because the messages that have been going out year after year, in report after report, have not made a sufficient impact upon the culture of schools.

The need for more systematic teaching of phonic skills, for more direct and clear explanations to children, for more teaching of the whole class at once, for more specific literacy teaching in the junior years are still being ignored in too many places, he feels. How can he get his message across? Gentle documents suggesting changes in practice may simply sit on the headteacher's shelf and will make at best a paragraph in the newspapers. Hard-hitting, bold statements in strong language will make the headlines, and will be discussed in staffrooms everywhere. But in what terms?

Mr Woodhead is in a difficult position. His reputation in many schools as a scourge of teacher-trendiness, with a political axe to grind, makes it increasingly hard for him to get his message heard. This is a shame, because OFSTED's report on the teaching of reading in 45 inner-London primary schools contains many useful points about what makes effective teaching of reading, as well as worrying descriptions of what holds children back.

In order to regain the trust of teachers, OFSTED has got to be above board and to be seen to be above reproach. Its latest report begs many questions, and it would have been more honest to pose them forthrightly, and propose hypotheses, than to try to answer them with insufficient evidence. For example, both Mr Woodhead and Gillian Shephard insisted that funding was not an issue, but the report's main findings state: "A quarter of the schools were not sufficiently resourced to teach the national curriculum requirements for reading effectively." It is not clear from the evidence whether the schools' budgets were inadequate or whether they were allocating their funds unwisely, and it would have been better to say so. It would not have changed the fact that most of the unsatisfactory teaching seen did not have to do with resourcing.

OFSTED also stands accused by the three authorities inspected, Tower Hamlets, Islington and Southwark, of betraying their trust. They agreed to take part on the basis that it would be co-operative and would highlight methods and policies "which contribute to measurable improvements in reading standards in the diverse circumstances of inner-city schools". Under the circumstances, the report should have gone further in examining the particular - and diverse - needs of inner-city children and teachers.

What are the needs of Asian children compared with working-class white children - the group about whom the greatest concern is expressed? The former are often keen learners whose biggest problem is that they do not speak English; the latter have problems which are much more intractable, as the report itself says. It is to be hoped that OFSTED will investigate ways of helping these specific children.

Little is said about the large numbers of children whose first language is not English. We are told that 80 per cent of the children had reading ages below their chronological age at the beginning of Year 2, but it is not until nearly the end that the report states the obvious, "Part of the reason for this slow start is that a majority of the intake in some schools do not speak English as their first language". Other questions raised in the mind of the reader are: what, if anything, do these findings mean for the rest of the country? What was the impact of the high rates of teacher and pupil turnover? How do you get the best teachers into the worst schools? Why did the Government fail to expand Reading Recovery, whose methods are praised in this report as highly effective? Are there extra costs in the large amount of in-service training it says is needed?

The finger is again pointed at teacher training colleges, but are trendy approaches to blame? The Government's own policies in the 1980s gave priority to subject specialisms, reducing the hours available for reading to about 35. It has now been boosted to 100 hours, but we shall have to wait for OFSTED's survey for evidence of the effects..

Finally, the report's methodology raises questions about the national curriculum tests upon which league tables are to be based this year. If OFSTED needed the standardised Neale Analysis for reliable results, what are we to think?

This OFSTED report draws a worrying picture, but its criticisms are not new. There is a wide gap in pupils' performance from one school to another. There was too much time spent on free reading with little or no intervention. Advanced reading skills for older pupils were often neglected. There was insufficient phonics teaching. A great deal of time was spent listening to children read with little benefit. There was inadequate guidance for teachers in two-thirds of schools.

A great deal is being expected of the new literacy centres. Let us hope they are not undermined by more short-termism.

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