Report on Southwark has eliminated the positive

17th May 1996 at 01:00
If there were a conspiracy of silence over failing schools, as chief inspector Chris Woodhead alleges, then this education authority would not be spending money on an enlarged inspection service, the Reading Recovery programme, in-service training on reading, and courses for language co-ordinators, still less imposing on the long-suffering council-tax payer thebill for those measures from which the Government has withdrawn funding.

However, let me respond to the accusation that Southwark has been defensive in suggesting political bias in its presentation.

Even in the final version of the report on the teaching of reading as redrafted by Mr Woodhead, there is, in the sections on teaching methods and classroom management, considerable description of good practice as well as bad. This is not focused into positive guidelines for effective teaching, and is absent from the Office for Standards in Education's own press release, which consisted of bullet points summarising every aspect of bad practice and poor results. Leading the section on testing was the information that 80 per cent of Year 2 (key stage 1) were below their chronological reading age, which translated into "failure" in media reports.

However, the National Foundation for Educational Research test taken was different from the national tests at KS1 and KS2, which tell a different story. At KS1, most pupils in this authority perform slightly, but not much, below the national average, whereas at KS2 they have fallen further behind. Our efforts so far have therefore been concentrated on why pupils' progress has not been maintained.

Why the discrepancy at KS1? Two reasons have been suggested. First, the test was taken nine months before the national tests, in many cases by six-year-olds. At this age nine months represents a lot of progress. Second, this is a different test from the national tests for which the children have been prepared. Older children could well be able to transfer their skills more easily than younger ones.

In view of the report's own assumption that it is legitimate to draw conclusions from different year groups at the same age, it will be interesting to see whether we can maintain the higher standards in national tests at KS1, and if so, whether it is useful to draw far- reaching conclusions from this one administration of the NFER test.

More baffling is the chief inspector's assertion that teachers are not asking for help with "effective, direct teaching of reading" when top of the list of requests from Year 2 teachers is "teaching early reading skills". Can it be that he is so wedded to the teaching of phonics that he does not recognise words of the same meaning when he sees them?

The chief inspector obviously believes that if children were given structured phonics training early enough, this would compensate in terms of achievement for all the effects of social disadvantage. If this were true, the report would have provided an opportunity to demonstrate that schools which taught phonics were more successful, and pupils made more progress, than in other schools, but by concentrating on bad practice at the expense of the positive, he has failed to do this. The purpose of including analysis of good practice is not to boost the morale of teachers, let alone of chairs of education, but to provide evidence for what methods lead to success. In his anxiety to be a messenger of doom, Mr Woodhead has failed to make his point.

Can this report start a debate about effective teaching somewhat above the level of ludicrously over-simplified and ill-informed comment about trendy teachers and loony-Left LEAs? The omens from the press are not promising, and the report itself provides much assertion from the chief inspector, and rather less in the way of evidence than we had hoped for. It would be ironic if the survey failed in its purpose because it was less than rigorous in examining the evidence of success. This is why LEAs are disenchanted with the manner of its presentation.


Chair of education and leisure

London borough of Southwark

Southwark Town Hall

Peckham Road, London SE5

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