From maths to music, how schools fail pupils

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The Independent Online

The Government's exams watchdog issues a damning indictment today of how core national curriculum subjects are taught in the classroom.

End-of-term reports on all the 15 subjects covered by the national curriculum reveal serious shortcomings in most subject areas - including English, science, geography and history.

Geography is singled out for the biggest criticism in the reports, with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority saying it is "in a critical state". Its "low status" is creating a generation of young people who are not being properly educated about vital global issues, it is argued.

Concern is also voiced about the image of black Britons being given out in history lessons - with too much concentration on slavery and post-war immigration painting a negative picture of what they have contributed to the UK.

On the core subjects, the watchdog warns of a "significant increase" in plagiarism in English homework as pupils get help from the internet. They are also finding it harder to produce extended essays as they have become used to being given a lot of help with their work.

In maths, many schools have resorted to retesting youngsters as soon as they start at secondary level because they do not trust the results of national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds. They believe that too many youngsters have been coached for the tests and still lack basic knowledge of subjects.

The reports expose serious concerns that ministers will have to grapple with if they are to deliver Tony Blair's vision of a "world-class" education service for every youngster.

The problem is most stark in geography, with the watchdog claiming the subject is the worst taught on the timetable - stuck in a "vicious cycle of decline". Sue Lomas, president of the Geographical Association, said: "I think that geography has been neglected in some schools because it is not one of the subjects that really affects the league tables."

The subjects assessed

* MATHS

Most secondary schools are testing pupils as they enter because they mistrust the results of national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds. Teachers "do not feel the levels [achieved] in May accurately reflect the ability of pupils in September".

Many claim that primary school teachers have been coaching their pupils to reach the required level in the tests - but have not instilled in them a basic understanding of the subject.

About one in five pupils makes no progress in the subject at all between tests they take at 11 and those they take at 14. Many primary schools have introduced sets for maths (teaching pupils in groups according to ability) from the age of five "despite the lack of research evidence of any benefits to children's learning". The only evidence teachers have at that stage is baseline tests taken at the age of four or five.

* ENGLISH

Children are losing the "reading stamina" required to finish whole books because their English lessons now rely on short extracts.

Students no longer study a rich range of literature but are forced instead to read the same short stories from anthologies year after year.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) reports "a significant increase" in teachers' concerns about plagiarism arguing that the easy availability of material on the internet made in difficult to ensure that students' coursework was all their own work.

Pupils also found it hard to produce extended pieces of writing unaided because they have become used to being given lots of guidance to help them with their work.

* SCIENCE

Experiments are being squeezed out of English schools because class sizes are too large to do them safely. Even GCSE and A-level students no longer do enough practical science because large classes and a lack of time mean that schools are cutting back on time for experiments.

Primary school science is also being damaged by its second-class status compared to English and maths. It is often taught in the afternoons, when children are tired, to leave mornings free for literacy and numeracy.

A shortage of well qualified secondary school science teachers is also cited as a problem.

* LANGUAGES

Too many pupils are jeopardising job prospects by dropping languages at 14. Only 58 per cent now study languages after that age as a result of the Government's decision to scrap compulsory lessons from 14 to 16. The fallout is likely to have less of an impact on A-level standards - as it is largely the most able children who continue studying the subject.

However, the take-up of languages in primary schools - where ministers have set a target of every seven-year-old having the right to learn a language by 2010 - has been "positive". In all, 43 per cent of primary schools now offer languages compared with about one in four two years ago.

* GEOGRAPHY

The subject is in a critical state in schools because its low status is creating a generation of young people who are not being properly educated about vital global issues.

It is stuck in a "vicious circle of decline" - the numbers of students have plummeted over the past decade despite many young people's natural interest in issues such as environmental change and global warming.

The QCA warns that geography is one of the worst-taught subjects in schools and that it "lacks rigour and fails to motivate young people".

GCSE entries have declined by nearly a third since 1996 while A-level entries dropped by more than one quarter. The report also blames the "tired and dated content" in many exam courses.

* HISTORY

Black Britons are often portrayed too negatively in history lessons. Lessons are confined to topics such as slavery and post-war immigration. "The effect, if inadvertent, is to undervalue the overall contribution of black and ethnic minority people to Britain's past and to ignore their cultural, scientific and many other achievements," the report says.

Exams watchdogs are drawing up their own bibliography of black history - highlighting achievements - for schools across the country to draw on. Lessons for pupils aged 14 and over also concentrate too much on the Tudors and 20th century dictatorships, such as Hitler's Germany. "There has been a gradual narrowing and 'Hitlerisation' of post-14 history," it adds.

* ART AND DESIGN

Lessons vary too much in quality between schools. However, at secondary school, the subject has the highest percentage of excellent or very good teaching of any subject.

* BUSINESS EDUCATION

The take-up of the subject has declined among 14 to 16-year-olds because of the widening number of subject choices for this age group.

* MUSIC

Time for lessons is often squeezed in secondary schools because of the pressure from other subjects. However, take-up of instruments in primary schools has improved with more freelance musicians invited in to work with children.

* PHYSICAL EDUCATION

More schools are meeting the Government's target of setting aside at least two hours a week for PE. However, some schools have reduced the amount of time available - because they are shortening the lunch break to contain behaviour problems.

* RELIGIOUS EDUCATION

Record numbers of students are opting to take the subject at GCSE and A-level. However, concern has been expressed that there are limited opportunities to study it at A-level other than from the perspective of Christianity.

* PERSONAL, SOCIAL AND HEALTH EDUCATION

Inspectors say lessons do not cover a broad enough range of subjects - and neglect areas such as parenting education and mental health and well-being.

* DESIGN AND TECHNOLOGY

Take-up has fallen at GCSE since it became optional for pupils aged 14 to 16.

* INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATIONS TECHNOLOGY

There is a high failure rate in both ICT and computing at AS-level. Some schools are failing to deliver the full ICT curriculum to all 14 to 16-year-olds.

* CITIZENSHIP

This is the fastest growing GCSE subject with 38,000 entries this summer - a sign schools are taking seriously the exhortation from ministers to instil a sense of civic responsibility into tomorrow's young adults.

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