Friday, June 22, 2007

This Year's Silver Bullet


Would you like them in a house?
Would you like them with a mouse?
I do not like them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere.
I do not like green eggs and ham.
I do not like them, Sam-I-am.

Synthetic Phonics. Most of us had never heard of it until David Cameron made this particular method of teaching reading a political issue during his brief spell as Shadow Education Minister in 2005. He confidently told us:

"Based on the evidence, we believe synthetic phonics is a far more effective teaching method than the combination of methods currently advocated by the National Literacy Strategy."

Since then, this specific of primary teaching method has become a key plank in the Tories' national education policy. And such is its political momentum and presumed electoral appeal, that Gordon Brown is being forced to neutralise it by adopting synthetic phonics as his own national reading policy.

Why the heat?

Well, because our state primary schools are still failing to teach around 20% of their pupils to read properly before they go on to secondary school (ie they fail to reach so-called Level 4 attainment). Which is clearly a disgrace.

Of course Blunkett's National Literacy Strategy was meant to sort it. You remember, his much hyped top-down programme, including the Literacy Hour, when all Britain's kids would sit down together at the same time and chant out loud from an improving book personally selected by education expert Blunkett.

Sadly, after some initial success, the NLS has stalled. According to this week's report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on Tackling Low Educational Achievement, that's because it followed an "excessively mechanical approach, cutting classes into bite-size pieces, divorcing reading texts from books, and overdoing quantitative criteria – even for deskilling teachers".

Worse, Rowntree reckons the NLS was never properly thought through in the first place:

"It appears to have been introduced without rigorous attention to the findings of research about the teaching of reading."

Difficult to believe, I know. A didactic education policy based not on research, but on hunch and intuition from the Secretary of State's sofa.

But what makes anyone think this next silver bullet will be any more successful? Here's the Rowntree Report again:

"Even [the government's own] review suggested synthetic phonics had to be used in association with other techniques to enrich the learning experience; but some doubt both the overwhelming superiority credited to the method by the review and the evidence on which the recommendations were based, particularly the famous study of Clackmannanshire, where the good results may have been due to other factors besides synthetic phonics."

That won't stop their enforced introduction of course. Once again, political imperatives have already decided that, and the nation's non-reading kids will pay the price.

None of this happens in independent schools. There, politicians hold no sway. Prep and pre-prep schools teach reading according to how the teachers decide results can be best achieved, and they answer direct to customers for the outcome. In practice, that means they've stuck with traditional phonic based methods throughout the last fifty years, whatever crazy silver bullets may have been ricocheting around in the politico blighted state sector.

How much better if state funded schools worked in the same way.

PS Anyone who has ever read Dr Seuss for pleasure or profit- or even as a bedtime story- will know his books are both highly addictive and severely damaging to adult mental faculties. It's the surreal repetition- great for new young readers, but deeply unsettling for anyone else (if you don't believe me, try reading aloud Green Eggs and Ham). Anyway, not to be left behind by the new speeding bullet, the Seuss empire has come out with Dr Seuss and Synthetic Phonics. That's what I love about free markets.

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