Spread the word to leafy suburbs

24th May 1996 at 01:00
Poverty and low scores in reading tests go together like holidays in Spain and a sun tan. One doesn't necessarily imply the other, but, whether the children live in Buckinghamshire or east London, there's a substantial correlation. If to poverty you add instability at home and at school and a high proportion of children who start school with little or no English, then the low scores shown in the Office for Standards in Education study of reading in three inner London boroughs should come as no surprise.

Yet in the report we find that not only are the children in some schools doing very well indeed in exceedingly difficult circumstances, but also that the mean scores of all children show significantly fewer scoring below the national norm at 11 than at seven. So during those four years their teachers have clearly achieved more than the national average.

In laying the blame squarely on the teachers, seeing weaknesses in planning, management and teaching as the chief barriers to pupils' progress, OFSTED discredits itself and demonstrates how politicised school inspection has become. It also reduces the possibility of a demoralised profession taking note of its message on school shortcomings.

Yet a call for greater attention to the organisation and range of reading, for more direct teaching to groups and classes should not be dismissed.

Far too many schools rely on listening to individuals as the chief means of teaching reading. Far too many give their children an incoherent experience of phonics and a narrow range of texts. As director of a small project examining and extending group instruction in early literacy, I would certainly endorse the need for change in these areas.

But is it really the hard-pressed teachers of our inner cities who are in greatest need of this lesson? In my experience it's their more fortunate colleagues in leafy suburbs who find least incentive to develop their practice.

HENRIETTA DOMBEY Professor of literacy in primary education University of Brighton

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