Week of education setbacks ends with damning report on English teaching

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The Independent Online

Damning reports by a government watchdog identified serious failings in teaching at primary and secondary schools yesterday, rounding off an embarrassing week for Ruth Kelly, the new Secretary of State for Education.

Damning reports by a government watchdog identified serious failings in teaching at primary and secondary schools yesterday, rounding off an embarrassing week for Ruth Kelly, the new Secretary of State for Education.

In the fourth blow to Tony Blair's record on a key election issue in four days, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority said that English lessons had deterred pupils from reading entire books while history teachers ignored Britain and concentrated on Adolf Hitler.

The watchdog also said, in reports on individual subjects, that there were too few mathematics teachers, that there was a squeeze on science for young children and that music teaching had too often become a "lottery".

But the main source of the QCA's concern was its assessment of what had gone wrong in teaching English, and, particularly, in the nurturing of reading. Children now lacked the "stamina" to read whole books because of a drive to use only short extracts in English lessons, the watchdog said.

And an increasing "culture of dependence" had damaged pupils' ability to write creatively because highly structured classroom exercises had left them reliant on "pre-set structures and formats". When children did read books together as a class, they were often forced to study the same texts in consecutive years because of the very limited choice of books offered in schools.

Book such as The Iron Man, the children's classic by the late poet laureate Ted Hughes could be studied by children for three school years between the ages of nine and 11. Children in their final year of primary school tended to read Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and Anne Frank's Diary. But they were often expected to study them again during their first three years of secondary school.

The report warned: "A number of books were read across several years. This raises concerns about progression in reading both within and between key stages. At GCSE and A-level, the set texts have changed little in the last few years and there is a limited range of texts studied for examinations."

Maths lessons were being hampered by the shortage of well-qualified maths teachers in secondary schools. One in five secondary school maths teachers now lacked a good qualification in mathematics, the QCA found.

There was also "widespread disquiet" over the narrowing of history teaching and the "Hitlerisation" of GCSE and A-level courses. The report by the QCA found that study was dominated by the Tudors and 20th century dictatorships. It warned: "This narrowing of post-14 history has been roundly criticised, particularly where some schools appear to revisit similar periods of history."

In primary schools, the youngest children learnt about little more than the Great Fire of London and the work of Florence Nightingale.

Foreign language teaching had declined in nearly one in five secondary schools after the Government made the subject optional for 14 to 16-year-olds. Although the subject remains compulsory for 11 to 14-year-olds, 18 per cent of schools reported that they had reduced language teaching for this age group. But the reports did make clear that examination standards were rising although they raised some concerns about curriculum content and teaching methods.

The critical reports came at the end of a particularly difficult week for the Government on education, in which Ms Kelly admitted that bad behaviour was still a problem in schools and called for less tolerance of low-level disruption. This was followed by the annual report of David Bell, the chief inspector of schools in England, which indicated that bad behaviour had steadily risen since 1997.

In addition, a report from the National Audit Office concluded that the Government had failed to cut the level of truancy despite having spent hundreds of millions of pounds on measures to improve levels of attendance.

But the Department for Education and Skills mounted a robust defence of its policies, arguing that it already supported many schemes to broaden children's reading and did not condone a reliance on extracts from texts in lessons.

"We believe it is important that pupils study challenging whole texts where possible, and do not rely solely on extracts from works of literature," a spokeswoman said.

"The department supports a wide range of initiatives to encourage pupils to read more widely for pleasure, including funding for the National Reading Campaign."

She added that much had already been done to recruit more well-qualified maths teachers including offering enhanced salaries, training bursaries and "golden hellos".

She also welcomed the increase in primary school teaching of modern foreign languages.

SUBJECTS UNDER EXAMINATION

ENGLISH

* Pupils lack the "reading stamina" to finish a book because they are increasingly taught using short extracts.

* A "culture of dependence" has damaged children's ability to write well because lessons now include too many highly structured writing exercises.

* Children don't read enough different texts. Schools expect them to study the same classic texts over and over again.

MATHS

* Shortage of well-qualified maths teachers in secondary schools. One in five maths teachers does not have a post-A-level maths qualification

* Teachers are unhappy with the current GCSE arrangements which see less able students entered for a foundation exam where the highest grade they can achieve is a 'D'.

SCIENCE

* Teachers warn that the subject has been squeezed by the focus on literacy and numeracy in primary schools

MODERN LANGUAGES

* Nearly one in five schools has cut the time spent on language teaching for pupils aged 11 to 14 after Government made the subject optional for GCSE students.

* However, more primary schools report some sort of language teaching: 44 per cent, up from 22 per cent in 2001.

HISTORY

* Given too low a priority in the curriculum. Too narrow in focus. * The youngest primary pupils often learn little more than "the specifics of the Great Fire of London and the work of Florence Nightingale".

* "Widespread disquiet" over the narrowing and "Hitlerisation" of history for the over 14s.

* In secondary schools, topics such as the British Empire are not treated with the significance they deserve. Local history is being neglected.

GEOGRAPHY

* Primary geography is "in poor shape". The subject is given low status and little time.

* The number of students taking geography GCSE, AS and A-level has dropped by more than 20 per cent since 1996.

* Fieldwork is hampered by schools' concerns about safety, funding and time.

MUSIC

* There are doubts about whether children are learning the formal basics - such as a sense of beat and pitch - which are needed for further progression.

* Music teaching is "still a lottery" in primary schools with many teachers lacking the confidence to teach it effectively.

INFORMATION COMMUNICATION TECHNOLOGY

* Teaching in secondary schools "is still not as good as other subjects".

* For 16 to 18-year-olds the proportion of good or better specialist teaching of ICT is low.

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