In its most upbeat account so far of English primary schools, the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) said that half of junior school teaching is good. For decades, inspectors reported that 20 per cent of lessons were poor. Now the figure is just 7 per cent.
Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, spoke of a "culture change" that had led teachers to abandon past dogmas on teaching methods. But the four-year review of 18,000 primary schools and 1,250,000 lessons warns that progress must be even faster if the Government is to meet its targets for 11-year-olds by 2002.
The number of 11-year-olds reaching the expected level in national curriculum tests in English and maths has risen by 15 per cent over four years and needs to rise by another 15 per cent to meet the targets.
Mr Woodhead said the report contained much good news: "If we can't get the foundations right in our primary schools then everything else that follows is built on sand."
He warned against complacency. In literacy, pupils at the best schools are two years ahead of those in the worst schools even when differences in children's backgrounds are taken into account. The report speaks of "a powerful intolerance of underachievement and a refusal to accept variables related to pupils' home backgrounds as an excuse for lack of progress" in the best schools serving poor areas.
Mr Woodhead spoke of the "hardy perennial" of a dip in achievement among pupils aged seven and eight and the continuing problem of under-performing boys, who lag behind girls in literacy. In writing, girls outperformed boys by 16 percentage points last year.
Ten per cent of the four million primary pupils arrive at secondary school without the skills they need.
The weakest subject is information technology, which is taught badly in more than 25 per cent of schools.
Mr Woodhead said Ofsted did not claim credit for individual schools' improvements: that must go to teachers and heads. But he added: "By speaking clearly about weaknesses we have led the way to a change of culture and new ways of working."
Schools were using less topic work, in which several subjects are integrated under a common theme, encouraging more specialist teaching and setting work according to ability. They were also introducing more whole-class teaching.
Despite the report's warning of the need for quicker progress in literacy, Mr Woodhead said he believed that the Government would meet its targets because of the impact of the new national literacy and numeracy strategies.
The report calls for more money for schools in the most deprived areas so that they can reduce class sizes.
Overall, 3 per cent of primary schools are failing and a further 8 per cent have serious weaknesses. One in eight headteachers is not up to scratch.
The report concludes that after a period of constant change caused by government reforms, primary schools need a period of stability and consolidation.
Estelle Morris, the School Standards minister, said: "It is encouraging to see that the standard of primary education is improving.
"The review provides evidence of the need to improve standards of literacy and numeracy and for all schools to learn from the best."Reuse content