Now for the good news

19th April 1996 at 01:00
Four million children in 20,000 buildings taught by 200,000 staff: primary education is too important to be left on the fringes, says Ted Wragg. He welcomes our new section - it's a chance, he says, to celebrate and share good practice.

As one of the 200,000 teachers who work in primary education, you have just won yourself a prize. It is this new weekly primary and early years section in The TES.

This initiative comes when primary and early childhood education is, as they say, at a crossroads. There are four signposts pointing in different directions. Three are marked "Bigger Classes and Less Money", "Excrement Creek without a Paddle" and "Early Retirement". The fourth, labelled "Heaven", has fallen over and is pointing nose down to the centre of the Earth. But I still find primary schools the most exciting places to visit, so never mind, let's get on with it.

Primary education is regularly attacked by politicians and the press, as well as by the chief inspector. Yet more than 4 million children attend these much reviled schools, almost all of them happily nowadays, in contrast with many of their grandparents who readily say how much they hated school when they were young.

I was in a school a few weeks ago looking at children's progress in reading. Gemma, a five-year-old in the reception class, started school last September. She obtained a very low score on a language test we gave her at that time. Now, at just five-and-a-half a few months later, she reads me a simple story at a reasonable fluency and with understanding. She is able to answer questions about the test and correctly identify individual letters and words, apart from "butcher" (and no, she had not just learned the test off by heart).

Gemma has done particularly well, but she is not the only child in her class to have reached a similar level, and even the slowest can write a few letters and recognise one or two words. In most European countries Gemma and her friends would not be starting school for another six to 18 months. If what they can now do constitutes "failure" then I'm a banana.

I am delighted that The TES is now going to recognise this important part of the education system with its own special section. It will save ferreting through the paper, finding a snippet here and a sliver there.

Take the important issue of early years education as an example. On one aspect alone, nursery vouchers, there have been stories in various newspapers, mostly brief. Yet the nursery voucher experiment could turn out to be the thin end of a very thick wedge if the idea spreads to all schools. So it is important that the experience gained in the pilot schemes is properly evaluated and reported.

One of the most important features of the new section will be to celebrate and share good practice around the country.

With 200,000 teachers in 20,000 primary schools one would expect, sadly, a few schools and teachers that are not up to the mark. These have been given disproportionate publicity. But the majority of teachers have been running their socks off these past few years, with too little recognition of what they have achieved.

Part of the problem is that many teachers regard it as immodest to talk or write about their own practice. Unlike surgeons, who cheerfully get up and tell their colleagues all about it any time they find a new way of tweaking an ingrowing toenail, teachers tend to be too coy about what they do.

A few years ago I did a project in which we persuaded schools that did not share too much with parents, to invite them to come in and see what was happening in the school on a more regular basis.

Many teachers, particularly those who taught the youngest children, were apprehensive. They feared that if teachers were seen ramming kids into their wellies and snowsuits, or grovelling round the floor with four and five-year-olds, pretending to be the incey-wincey spider, parents might conclude that any fool could be a teacher.

Quite the opposite happened. Most parents' reaction was, "I can't even manage properly with my two, so how that teacher copes with a class-full I shall never know."

It is time that more teachers came out of the closet, so to speak, and this new section of The TES will encourage the diffusion of what is good about primary and early years education.

So whether it is playgroups, nurseries, infant or first schools, junior or middle, all-age village primary, uptown or downtown, I look forward to reading about it on a regular basis. Primary education is too important to be left on the fringe. What was it that Jesuit priest is supposed to have said? "Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you a Level 2"? Well, near enough.

Ted Wragg is professor of education at Exeter University

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