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Last Updated: Saturday, 2 September 2006, 07:46 GMT 08:46 UK
All change for the new school year
By Mike Baker
Education correspondent, BBC News

Primary classroom
The emphasis on phonics in learning to read marks a policy shift
Are you ready for the new school year? The new uniforms are in the shops and teachers are beginning to have that haunted look again.

In our household, the panic over the AS-level art coursework project has already begun - and the term has not even started.

For most teachers and students, the summer has gone in a flash. For parents it may have dragged a bit.

Of course, the Scots have been back at school for some time. Being sensible,

they take their holidays in June and July when the days are at their longest.

But for most of the rest, it is back to school this week. You will know when your local schools are back by the sudden increase in early morning commuter traffic.

It also means new courses, timetables, friends and - education being still in constant flux - lots of changes.

So what is new? There will be new initiatives at all levels: a new core curriculum in primary schools, tougher guidelines on school dinners, and a further step towards a new secondary school system.

Primary Schools

For five to 11-year-olds in England, the biggest change will be the revamped 'frameworks' for the teaching of English and maths.

The 'numeracy hour' and the 'literacy hour' have now entered the education lexicon, although they have only been around for seven years.

While they have brought improvements in the national test results at ages seven and 11 in English and maths, the government is frustrated that progress appears to have stalled well short of its targets.

Meanwhile employers continue to complain that school-leavers lack basic skills such as the ability to spell and punctuate or do mental arithmetic.

So, to deal with these concerns, the numeracy and literacy curriculum is being narrowed further to focus more specifically on core areas.

In English there will be a new emphasis on the use of phonics in learning to read. Specifically this will mean greater use of Synthetic phonics, which involves children learning the sounds of letters and letter groupings before they attempt whole words.

So, for example, in the Foundation Stage (reception year), children will be taught to 'link sounds to letters, naming and sounding the letters of the alphabet'.

In Year 1 they will 'use phonics to read unknown or difficult words' and by Year 3 they should be reading independently using phonics.

In maths, mental arithmetic will be stressed even more strongly than before. So, for example, children are expected to learn the two, five and 10 times tables in Year 1.

Burger Ban

If the changes in teaching fail to boost standards, maybe the new requirements for healthier eating in school will produce dividends.

After all, supporters of the changes that begin this term claim not only that they will improve children's health but also their behaviour and concentration.

In England, the new standards for school food affect not only what is served in the canteen but also what is on sale in the vending machines and tuck shops.

So there is an outright ban on the sale of sweets, fizzy soft drinks, and salty crisps and nuts.

School meals will change. Out go some old stand-bys: 'economy' sausages and burgers are banned, no salt dispensers are allowed on tables, and there must be no more than two deep-fried items a week.

All meals must now include at least two portions of fruit and vegetables per day and there must be fish in the menu at least twice a week in secondary schools.

This is only the start. In future years, the standards will be tightened further to require minimum nutritional content in every meal served.

It is a long overdue change. There are some risks though. Will every school, especially the small rural ones, have the kitchens and the staff to deliver it? Will the price of meals go up?

And will some children be put off the healthier meals and turn instead to either their own, unregulated lunch boxes or the local chip shop.

Secondary Schools

For secondary schools, the big changes are less to do with the curriculum than the system as a whole.

For, while the debate over examination reform continues, nothing much is changing this term.

However the spread of the International Baccalaureate, and the start of pilots for the new specialised Diplomas, are a reminder that the whole exam structure is beginning to shift.

The new term will see a further batch of City Academies opening as the government moves ahead with its target of 200 of these new schools by 2010.

There will also be much talk about the new Trust Schools, although the legislation that makes them possible is not due to become law until November.

In the meantime the government will be busy seeking outside partners to run the new Trusts, hoping that the cash-for-peerages row will not frighten off too many potential sponsors.

For parents, though, it means an increasingly complex pattern of secondary schools. Just look at the number of school labels that will be on offer: Community, Foundation, Trust, City Academy, Specialist College, Comprehensive, and Grammar.

Just try explaining to an interested foreigner the differences between these school types and you soon realise that it is about as arcane and impenetrable as Sven-Goran Eriksson's tactics at World Cup 2006.

Even the government had to concede that the new Trust Schools are really exactly the same as Foundation Schools with the addition of outside sponsors.

Discipline

One change that teachers will welcome will be the new legal right to discipline misbehaving pupils.

They will have to wait until the current legislation becomes law but, before Christmas, they should have the new assurance that they do indeed have a legal right to impose sanctions on pupils who break school rules.

For teachers it should be a welcome step towards ending the culture of pupils, and even parents, saying 'I know my rights and there is nothing you can do to me'.

The new law will also require parents to take full responsibility for their children if they are excluded from school. That means for the first five days parents must ensure their children are not wandering the streets or shopping malls.

From the sixth day, local authorities will be required to offer alternative full-time provision. It will not be easy but it should mean the end of excluded pupils just drifting on the periphery of the system.

Goodbye LEAs

Finally, the enactment of the current Education Bill will mark the end of an era. A much used, 100 year-old educational acronym, will disappear. The LEA will be no more.

No, council education departments are not being closed down. It is just that the merger of 'Local Education Authorities' with 'Children's Services' means that the new official acronym will be 'LAs' (Local Authorities).

While this means that heads and teachers will no longer be able to moan about 'the blasted LEA', it is a rare example of educational acronyms getting shorter rather than longer.


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SEE ALSO
Junk food banned in school meals
19 May 06 |  Education

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