PRIMARY schools get their highest praise yet from the Office for Standards in Education for raising standards and improving test results in its review of the sector based on four years of inspection reports.
Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, insisted the credit was due to heads and teachers, but OFSTED had played a constructive part in setting out what was to be expected.
He said: "This is one of the most important reports OFSTED has published. If we cannot get the foundations right in our primary schools, then everything else is built on sand."
The review stresses the crucial importance of primary schools as the "make or break" influence on children's futures. The best schools are producing children who are two years ahead of others taking children from similar backgrounds.
As the review was aired, Mr Woodhead rejected the suggestion that praising schools was a deliberate change of tack from OFSTED. He said: "We have always wanted to identify success, but we have also sought to be explicit about the problems."
The review says the nation is getting better value for the pound;6.6 million it spends on its 18,000 primary schools, but the rate of progress will have to improve if the Government is to achieve its targets in English and maths.
According to Mr Woodhead, more heads are monitoring their teachers and good practice can be found in all subjects. However, the worst taught subject is information technology and local authorities need to put resources into training teachers.
The review accepts that teachers in tough areas have to face problems that others do not have to tackle. It breaks new ground in suggesting there is a case for additional resources in such areas to allow schools to employ trained teaching assistants and reduce the size of classes.
However, Mr Woodhead insisted he was not advocating extra Government funding, but only that local authorities should take account of the different needs of schools.
The review says it is possible to raise pupils' achievement despite distinctly unpromising social and economic home backgrounds. It adds: "All that said I these conditions are certainly sufficient to justify additional resources ... More importantly, there is a clear case for assuring better pupil-teacher ratios in schools serving areas of social and economic disadvantage, especially at key stage 1."
Overall, pupils make good progress in 30 per cent of schools and in another 60 per cent progress is satisfactory. About 3 per cent of schools are failing and further 8 per cent have serious weaknesses.
The proportion of 11-year-olds achieving the expected standard in English and maths has risen by 15 percentage points and a similar rate of improvement is required if Government targets are to be met.
However, Mr Woodhead insisted the targets could be reached. He said that the national strategies for literacy and numeracy would have an impact, as would the emphasis on the greater use of phonics in the teaching of reading.
The review points to an increase in the amount of direct whole-class teaching in primaries and more effective use of targets to improve teaching programmes. The report notes that many small schools are among the most successful of primaries, but a disproportionate number have serious weaknesses or are failing.
Provision for pupils with special educational needs is good in most schools, and rarely inadequate. There is much good and improving practice in additional special units attached to mainstream schools, but progress is least consistent for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties and moderate learning difficulties.
The failure of many schools to teach information technology is unwittingly creating two populations of pupils.
There are those pupils who benefit from IT-literate homes and from attending schools that teach the subject effectively. The other group attend primary schools that have yet to acquire the expertise to keep pace with the fast-growing field. In the majority of primary schools, information technology skills are not systematically taught and almost never assessed. Inspection reports found a far greater proportion of unsatisfactory teaching in IT than in any other subject.
FE Focus, 29