Month: September 2017

Lerr-ning to Ree-ad

With yet another version of the primary school curriculum on its way, the use of synthetic phonics continues to be prescribed as if this is the only way to learn to read. For a long time I have thought it strange that intelligent adults, who mostly claim to have learned to read before they went to school by look-and-say techniques, are so keen on telling others to learn by sounding out words without context or meaning. I’ve also been pleased to note the disquiet about the research on phonics and its effectiveness. The original Clackmannanshire research is now assumed by phonics enthusiasts to have been the right answer achieved in not quite the right way but, then, if you want to prove that people can sound out words because they have been trained to sound out words you will probably find the evidence. What you can’t discover is whether they have learned to read.

Is it fair to ask whether – if the teaching of reading by phonics has been an increasing success since, let’s say 2000, as national testing would imply – more teenage children should be reading in 2014? It seems a fair question but the clear answer is that they aren’t.

There are always a few middle-class anecdotes to suggest something different but they are the exception and, overall, reading by teenagers and young people has plummeted. The standard response is that other distractions have taken over so that children are busy reading online messages and texts and moving towards more visual stimuli. Well, those distractions are there for everyone yet adult reading is expanding exponentially with kindles and e-readers and large format phones. You can evidence that by travelling on a train where everyone over around 30 is likely to be reading while everyone under 25 is fiddling with their ‘phone or listening to music. You can also ask your friends to check this anecdotal evidence out, but be careful as it’s worth noticing that middle-class parents like to overestimate the reading their children do. If you want harder data, look at Amazon’s book revenues!

I can trace this reading divide to the obsession with phonics which really started to have an impact on teaching in the mid-1990s. My contention is that many of the children who learned to read after that time don’t read as adults. The effort of sounding out individual words make them slow readers and that makes reading for pleasure less enjoyable. Reading was taught to them as a chore and it remains one. Of course, that’s a generalisation but I cannot see much evidence to the contrary.

Other factors might have played a part. Since the introduction of the national curriculum, wider reading and reading for pleasure have both been systematically denigrated. When I was teaching English in the 1980s in a typical secondary comprehensive school, we had class libraries, silent reading lessons and a coursework based examination that encouraged children to read both classic and modern literature widely and for pleasure. I’ve always felt that it was the move towards 100% coursework in English which fostered the popularity of what is insultingly referred to as chick-lit, as well as a whole series of writers producing crime, science fiction and military novels aimed at young men. And that’s a lot of reading which, although it has never been given much credence by literary snobs, continues to flourish.

I don’t think we need another research project to prove the point either way but I do think it would be useful to have a national debate about approaches to reading that encourage reading and not decoding. It will be hard to have one. Saying the things I’ve said here will attract a backlash from publishers who say teenage fiction is healthy rather than recognising how books are purchased by parents and relatives and not read. Also, the advocates of phonics have a kind of evangelical zeal about them which does not tolerate any alternative. You can find these advisers in primary schools berating the staff and being totally dismissive of any other practice. Politicians also support phonics because they like easy hooks to hang their coats on and, just possibly, a few of them might see reading by the common people as slightly subversive. And, as for Guardian readers, they keep their heads in the sand and will be happy to tell us how their nieces simply love reading Jane Austen since they gave them a copy for Christmas. Personally, I’m not so sure!

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Sorting out our Schools

It is increasingly likely that we are going to have a Labour government within the next year and a bit and, while there is a lot to be done in many policy areas, we need to think about our schools. Previously, Labour has not got education right, assuming that we have to go for higher standards and more inspection and more curriculum requirements than the other lot in order to get elected. That was a wrongheaded policy and now we need a substantive change and a big policy debate so that in government we get things right from the start.

So what’s wrong currently with education and schools? Conservative policy has been to fragment and break up the education system into different varieties of schools, free schools and a range of academies. This has been done allegedly in the interests of parental choice and raising standards but, in the long run, it is a device to increasingly monetise education, centralise control and to allow a declining private system to profit from parts of the state system. It isn’t feasible to come into government and take education back to 1945 but we do have to have a debate about how to make schools properly accountable to communities and the public at large. Realistically, it is not necessary to unravel the way schools are but it is perfectly proper to ask them to explore their own accountability structures and to expect them to represent both local communities and the interests of the state.

The next big problem is what to do with standards, improvement, testing and examinations. We have somehow created an absurd testing and examination system where the stakes are impossibly high for schools. Schools are judged on test and examination performances which ignore what they’re supposed to do for children. Having discarded it once as ineffective, we have reinvented a system where cramming is the norm, where the short, timed examination is the only measure of knowledge and skills, and one where we have ramped up the expectations in tests and examinations so that they are increasingly unrelated to the skills that, as a society, that we want our future citizens to master. The inspection agency, OFSTED, relies on test and examination outcomes for its judgements so that schools are tempted to exclude low achievers, head teachers end up in disgrace for altering papers and we arrive at a situation where the presence of one or two bright pupils in a class of thirty children in a primary school can significantly distort results. We need to unpack the complicated and unhelpful relationship between setting high standards and trying to show that schools have improved by lowering outcomes. Currently, it’s a mess.

To sort it out we have to go back to the school curriculum which has been regularly tampered with since the 1990s and mostly in the wrong directions. The current curriculum is irrelevant to most children and even more absurdly so in relation to those, around half of all children, who receive the lower grades. The curriculum fails to take into account the expectations of employers, the need for practical and vocational skills, our multicultural society, the importance of initiative and thought, and the value of the arts. We need to have a curriculum which covers the essentials and allows schools to be creative in how it is delivered. We need parents and communities to monitor the quality of this not a government agency.

Then, we have to do something for teachers because if we do not improve their working conditions and put them under increasing pressure while not improving pay and conditions there will soon be none left. In many parts of the country, it is already almost impossible to recruit teachers in some subjects. How stupid and short-sighted is it to make increasing demands in modern languages when we aren’t training anybody to teach the subject? We don’t have to give teachers a bundle of money but we do have to give them more autonomy to teach, show more respect for what they do and offer them effective pathways and career structures.

Somewhere further down the list, we have to think about the fabric of schools and maintaining the estate. That’s another debate to be had but it needs to involve all of the stakeholders including local and national government, communities, parents and teachers. We also need to confront what we do about religion and sex education in schools. Very few people engage in the former and nearly everyone has problems engaging with the latter so we need to have a healthy debate about whether education needs to be secular and the links between education, health and social policy.

This is all stuff that needs to be talked about and then we have to articulate the reforms and devise a plan to put things right. There is a bit of a hard right wing lump which influences education policy and always sounds plausible when it wants to beat or isolate naughty children, make the clever ones work in monastic silence, distinguish the wealthy with daft uniforms and waffle on about how it can be that no one understands quadratic equations and the semi-colon any more. Luckily, they are an increasingly isolated and elderly gang of remote elitists so while they might resist reform they are not a barrier to it.

So, let’s get on with it.