The National Foundation for Educational Research says that pupils from the poorest backgrounds made less progress than those from more affluent homes - unlike a literacy scheme in Scotland reported in The Independent yesterday which found the best results in the most deprived schools.
The research looked at more than 200 schools in the most deprived areas which have been piloting the new national literacy strategy for two years. There were some big variations. Pupils at an inner-city school in Newcastle notched up 35 progress points on the reading scale compared with 1.5 points for a similar school in Liverpool.
Overall, inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education, who issued their own report, found most pupils were making "very promising progress".
But David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, said that the importance of phonics - teaching reading by matching letters to sounds - was still being ignored by nearly half of primary schools.
He added: "The secret is to accept what works, whether it upsets ideological convictions or not. The national literacy strategy works. If we can ensure that the methodology is used in classrooms throughout the country we will do a fantastic job."
The strategy, introduced nationally this term, includes a daily literacy hour. It is not compulsory but schools which choose not to use it must prove to inspectors that their results are up to scratch.
Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, said: "We are convinced that the national literacy strategy has brought significant improvements in the quality of teaching. The lack of understanding of phonics in some teachers remains the main obstacle to the success of the literacy hour."
Headteachers who failed to take an active interest in literacy and lack of support from local authority advisers also accounted for poor progress in some schools, he said.
Asked about the report in The Independent about research in Scottish schools showing that "synthetic phonics" was more effective than the "analytic phonics" of the national literacy strategy, Mr Woodhead said that the strategy contained some "synthetic phonics".
Tony Blair told a conference on phonics in London: "No teacher sets out to fail a child. We nevertheless have a situation where nearly 30 per cent of 11-year-olds have failed to reach the reading standard expected of their age and half of 11-year-old boys have serious problems with their writing." Successful schools, he added, placed a proper emphasis on "spelling, grammar and, not least, phonics".
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, said: "The project, like all pilots, was much better resourced than the actual introduction. Therefore, care must be taken when interpreting the results."
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