Sunday, November 18, 2007

Janet And Michael

Ah, Janet and John. No wonder we baby boomers were so keen to start reading. Even if we did have to go through all that cuh, ah, tuh stuff.

Of course, we later learned that although they'd taught us to read, those unspeakable icons of middle-class complacency had brainwashed us. Sexism, racism, gyno-fascism - it all sprang from Janet and John.

Thank goodness they were abolished, along with the old fashioned straight-jacket of "teaching us" to read.

Fast forward half a century. 20% of kids leaving state primary schools can't read; in sink areas it's up to 40%. There's a bit of a re-think going on.

Cuh, ah, and tuh are back. Only being 2007, they're now called synthetic phonics.

Sounds like a good idea, and we trust J&J will also be back soon.

There's just one question: given everything we know about their disastrous record over the last half-century, should politicos be in the business of enforcing its adoption from on high? Yes, of course we expect the socialist commissars to do it. But should the Trust the People Tories be doing the same?

Tory Schools shadow Michael Gove just repeated the party's commitment to rolling out synthetic phonics across all our primary schools (see previous blogs eg here). And more: he now wants to impose a "standardised reading test at the end of year one (age six) to ensure that children have mastered the skill of decoding" ("reading" to you and me).

Now Michael's a bright guy, so he must understand the reality of those national tests. Which is (as we've blogged before, eg here) that while they may be intended as a means of monitoring pupil progress, in reality they become "high stakes tests" for teachers and schools. They incentivise teaching to the test, rather than the much more important job of teaching for understanding.

Hence the widely observed problem of "target triage"- schools concentrating resources on those just below the critical pass mark, at the expense of those at the bottom who need the real help, and those at the top who will jump the hurdle anyway (see this blog).

So why on earth does he want to do it? The clue is in the last paragraph of his Sunday Times article:

"In order to push these changes through we may face a battle with the educational establishment. It’s a fight we’re happy to have, to ensure we don’t lose in the broader struggle to give the next generation the best possible start."

It's a noble aspiration. But what he's really saying is that he doesn't trust the teachers to do the right thing. So he's going to force them from Whitehall.

This is not the way to go. More of the same is simply a recipe for more scars on more ministerial backs, more demotivated teachers, and more failed pupils.

Wouldn't it be so much better to let the market do the work? Independent schools never dropped phonetics in the first place because the customers wanted their children taught to read rather than being being saved from gyno-fascism. Parental choice and school competition (aka vouchers) would be so much more effective in state schools than yet another round of top down directives and tests.

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