The early stars shine for longest

Starting school
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The Independent Online
Children who are the stars of the reception class are still ahead when they take GCSE, according to a paper to be published today. The paper, from London University's Institute of Education, shows that children's first teachers affect them throughout their school career.

It reveals that those who do not settle in quickly and happily are four times less likely to be reading by the end of the year, regardless of their knowledge of reading when they started school.

The findings are based on an investigation by Dr Jeni Riley, the institute's Head of Primary Education, who looked at research evidence, including a study of her own, on the importance of the first year at school.

Her paper, being given at the British Educational Research Association at Lancaster University, examined studies of pupils' progress from the age of five to 16.

The paper says that those who make the most progress in their first year remain the highest achievers at the ages of seven and 11, and go on to get the best GCSE results.

Dr Riley rejects the claim that anyone can teach a five-year-old and says such pupils need highly trained teachers with a good knowledge of literacy and numeracy.

Three years ago, John Patten, the then Secretary of State for Education, backed proposals for a "mums' army" to teach young children but the plans were later dropped. Dr Riley found that the children with the most experienced teachers made most progress during their first year.

Because children starting school already have a rich but idiosyncratic fund of knowledge, she says, it is vital for reception-class teachers to assess carefully the needs of each. Some five-year-olds are at the level of three-year-olds, while others have started to read. Valuable time is wasted if teachers are too busy or too harassed to assess them.

Previous research has shown that class size also makes a difference to the progress of children aged between five and seven. Dr Riley argues that small classes are particularly important in reception classes.

"An early successful start can be made by capitalising on young children's knowledge acquired prior to school and this seems to underpin and advantage pupils for all that is to come," she says.

"It is crucial not to waste this early, incidental learning, so that children are not confused by inappropriate teaching experiences, or worse still, alienated by them."

Another study, of 1,400 schools, to be presented at the conference tomorrow, shows that traditional methods of teaching reading may be more common than is often thought.

The research from Exeter University, part of a two-year project funded by the Lever Hulme Trust, shows that 99 per cent of schools use reading schemes rather than "real books" which may include any appropriate book.

Though 90 per cent of schools said they used a mixture of methods to teach reading, the most-mentioned method was phonics, which involves the sounding of words and which is favoured by traditionalists. Ninety per cent of schools send home lists of spellings for children to learn and two-thirds of junior schools are using standardised reading tests as well as the Government's National Curriculum tests.