Wilshaw: Insufficient development of spelling, punctuation and grammar teaching is “slowing children down”

The inspector described the lacking area as a ‘tragedy’ for young people and ‘an enormous waste of talent’ caused by good work at primary school being ‘lost when pupils enter the secondary phase’.

He said: “An altogether more structured and systematic approach to learning grammar, spelling and punctuation in primary schools means children were becoming more confident in tackling challenging writing tasks”.

He added: “As a consequence, the vast majority are ready for the transition to secondary school education. This is good for our children and it’s good for the country.”

However, Wilshaw expressed ‘great cause for concern about the transition from primary to secondary education’ after Ofsted conducted a report and a recent survey analysing the effectiveness of the curriculum at Key Stage 3.

He said: “Both these surveys identified that pupils, who have achieved so much at primary school, are not supported well enough to build on that momentum when they enter secondary school.

“My inspectors tell me that much of the good, structured work done in primary schools on understanding and using correct grammar, both when writing and when speaking, is lost when pupils enter the secondary phase.”

Wilshaw found that the rigour in which spelling, punctuation and grammar were taught at primary stage was ‘often not developed sufficiently at secondary stage, especially in the foundation subjects like history and geography’.

The lack of diligence resulted in children being ’slowed down’, but was particularly damaging for children with potential from disadvantaged backgrounds who 'disproportionately fail to fulfil their earlier potential when they come to sit their GCSE examinations'.

He added: “This is little short of a tragedy for the young people concerned and an enormous waste of talent for our country.”

Wilsahaw maintained that a ‘greater emphasis’ on the structure of language was a ‘key factor’ in improving performance levels at primary level. Although he accepted the focus on structure had began ‘some year ago’ with national literacy and numeracy strategies, it had been ‘sharpened still further over the past five years’.

He said: “The emphasis on high-quality, effective synthetic phonics teaching from the early years onwards is an integral part of the teachers’ standards guidance published four years ago.

He added: “When preparing my annual report commentary each year, the most difficult challenge is always deciding what I have to leave out, such is the wealth of material I have to draw on.

“This is why I am keen to start commenting more regularly on different aspects of our education system, based on emerging inspection evidence, my own first-hand observations and the considered views of those working in the system.”

Wilshaw also declared the teaching of phonics as significantly responsible for the increasing success of primary schools in England.

The debate regarding the method of phonics has become particularly controversial of late, with opponents of the practice going as far as to label it tantamount to ’child abuse’.

In spite of the system’s opposition, Wilshaw has insisted that ‘nobody can still convincingly argue that systematic phonics isn’t the most effective method of teaching children to read'.

The inspector’s comments are the first of what will be a monthly series of commentaries on the education system, in which he claims that primary schools are responsible for ‘highly impressive and encouraging statistics’.

Wilshaw argues that a key driving aspect beind the success of primary schools is the widespread teaching of synthetic phonics.

He said: “While far from universally popular when first introduced, the emphasis on phonics teaching is certainly bearing fruit. As noted recently by schools minister Nick Gibb, the national phonics screening check demonstrates continuing, strong progress in this vital area of learning for the youngest pupils.

“Surely nobody can still convincingly argue that systematic phonics isn’t the most effective method of teaching children to read. The structured yet engaging way in which this is being done is something my inspectors increasingly report.”   

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