Pushing paranoia from the parapet

9th February 1996 at 00:00
Primary teachers can be excused for being a little paranoid at present. It is not only Her Majesty's chief inspector who has been casting aspersions about their performance. Three weeks ago, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research published a maths study which showed that English 10-year- olds were still using their fingers to carry out calculations that their more numerate German and Swiss contemporaries could do in their heads. Then a week later, sections of the media added to teachers' discomfort by interpreting the national test results for 11-year-olds as a damning indictment of primary schools.

Such criticism is never welcome but, as this Update indicates, it is particularly galling this year because primary teachers seem to be working harder than ever, even though classroom assistants are playing an increasingly important role (page 21). As one Norfolk teacher told University of East Anglia lecturer Anne Cockburn (page 16): "I think many teachers are like me: they have this sort of professional perfectionism . . . You're always trying to do your best . . . and there is just too much to do and never enough time."

It had been hoped, of course, that the curriculum-slimming proposed by Sir Ron Dearing would combat this problem, but "free" time remains a rare commodity. Furthermore, adjusting to the level descriptions that have replaced "tick-box" assessment is not proving easy (page 4), and catering for children with special needs is becoming more problematical because of rising class sizes (40 per cent of children in Years 3-6 are now in classes of 30-plus). Meanwhile, the spectre of inspection haunts the staffroom, and too many city schools are either having to exclude seriously disturbed children (page 19) or respond to the growing drugs menace. Last week Keith Hellawell, West Yorkshire's police chief, said that girls as young as 11 were working as prostitutes in Bradford in order to finance their crack habit, and as Reva Klein reports (page 18) no fewer than six children in Hackney have allegedly been pricked by drug addicts' needles, one of which had been tossed into a school playground.

Little wonder that Anne Cockburn's publisher has deduced that the time is ripe for a "How to combat stress" book aimed specifically at primary teachers.

Nevertheless, it is equally clear from the myriad examples of good practice in these pages that many primary teachers still enjoy the job and care passionately about the educational experiences they offer children. Gerald Haigh's survey (page 12) shows how much fun primary staff can get out of teaching, given the right resources - "When I walk into class with Alan Ahlberg's poetry anthology, Please Mrs Butler, in my hand they go 'Yeah'!" one Year 2 teacher told him. And Diane Hofkins's article on Devoran primary in Truro, one of the schools that has most impressed the Office for Standards in Education, illustrates the sacrifices heads and class teachers will cheerfully make for their pupils.

OFSTED is, of course, much less impressed with many key stage 2 teachers' performance and feels that standards in secondary schools are higher. But Bill Laar (page 11), who is himself an experienced OFSTED inspector, rightly points out that primary teachers have to cope with 10 complex subjects, whereas their secondary colleagues usually deal with no more than two. It would be refreshing if that fact were acknowledged more often.

David Budge, Primary Update editor

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