SCHOOL STANDARDS: Week of education setbacks ends with damning report on English teaching

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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 English lessons had deterred pupils from reading whole 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 maths teachers, that there was a squeeze on science for young children and that music teaching was too often 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 maths qualification, 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 exam standards were rising although they raised some concerns about curriculum content and teaching methods.

The critical reports came at the end of a 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 showed bad behaviour had risen steadily since 1997.

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

But the Department for Education and Skills mounted a robust defence of its policies, arguing that it 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 the National Reading Campaign."

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

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