True primary colours

7th June 1996 at 01:00
Primary teachers feel that they are under siege, bombarded with criticism from left and right about the way they do their jobs. But there is a positive side to all this attention. At last the powers that be are coming to understand just how important the first stages of education are.

In his speech to the National Association of Head Teachers last week, David Blunkett, the Labour education spokesman, told his audience: "Primary excellence is vital for success in lifelong learning." He pointed to research showing that "the primary school has as much effect, if not more, than secondary schools on a pupil's examination performance at 16".

The Labour spokesman set out a plan, to mixed reviews from heads, for reaching towards that excellence. He even made the radical observation that "the development of primary education is not a prelude to moving to secondary school, but is an integral part of the process of developing the potential of every child".

The Government's back to basics campaigning can also be seen as a recognition of how crucial primary schools are in setting children up for life, even though many teachers disagree with the politicians' vision.

The days when law-makers thought primaries were just like secondary schools, only smaller (when they even remembered that much) seem to be gone. In the debate over teaching methodology lies an acknowledgement at last that what primary teachers do is distinctive and difficult, and that what happens in primary schools really matters.

It should be so obvious! That's why thousands of people have gone into primary teaching. Why has it been so hard for others to see?

David Blunkett set out ideas for dealing with what he called "a crisis in literacy and numeracy", such as limiting class size and rethinking teacher training.

He also spoke of the crucial importance of parents as their children's first educators and of their links with schools. And that is one of the main themes of this Primary Update. So often, parents' main link with the school has to do with raising money for essentials, and our writers are not short of ideas in that department (page 17). But real partnerships between home and school are hard to develop, and time-consuming, too.

How can teachers and parents work together in the child's best interests? How can schools find ways to help parents to help their children with their reading and maths without being patronising? Why don't some parents get involved? What should schools do to make them feel comfortable? These issues are all examined in this Update.

Teachers and parents need to pool their knowledge, and three-way discussions including children can be valuable. One parent said: "They may read better at home when they don't feel pressurised; they may know lots of things the school doesn't even have on the curriculum. I think the problem is getting those bits of your child into the school picture" (page 14).

Teaching children to read and write may be the most important thing that primary schools do - but it is not the only thing. As politicians strive to outdo each other in their plans for raising standards in the three-Rs, society must not lose sight of the value added by primary schools to other aspects of children's lives. The richness of the curriculum must not be lost.

The creativity and beauty experienced by children engaged in a dance performance based on the culture of India (page 18) will also prepare a foundation for the future. Meanwhile, the compassion and thoughtfulness engendered by learning about the children of Bosnia (page 9) will develop aspects of their personalities that no one would wish to see sidelined.

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