Friday, 20 February 2009

Let's not go back to 70s primary education

Despite the Today programme's insistence on the term, "independent" is certainly not an apt description of today's report from the self-styled 'largest' review of primary education in 40 years. It is another deeply ideological strike against standards and effective teaching of the 3Rs in our primary schools.

Many of its contributors oppose the very idea of school 'standards' and have an ideological opposition to external testing. They have been permanent critics of the changes of recent decades. And it is only in that light that the review's conclusions can be understood.

Of course, there is no conflict between teaching literacy and numeracy, and the other subjects within the primary curriculum. And the best schools do indeed show how doing them all well provides a good and rounded education. Presenting this as the point of difference is a diversionary Aunt Sally.

However, there is a very real conflict between recognising the need to single literacy and numeracy out for extra time over the other subjects as with the dedicated literacy and numeracy lessons, and making them just another aspect of primary schooling that pupils may or may not pick up along the way.

For far too long, after the Plowden review and a move towards so-called 'progressive' teaching, children were not being taught to read and write properly. Schools too often expected children to pick up reading by looking at books rather than being taught phonetically. Grammar and tables were often not taught, as they were seen as elitist.

The literacy hour started to undo this damage, and Jim Rose's excellent report on phonics pointed the way forward for the future. Part of the 'prescription' of the literacy hour included an expectation that children learn to spell and express themselves correctly. Good teachers pointed the way to synthetic phonics, not government diktat. Equally, many primary teachers lacked confidence in teaching basic arithmetic before the daily numeracy lessons.

But some university schools of education remained wedded to the old ways and were reluctant to accept these changes. After all, they had often failed to teach teachers properly how to teach these subjects. A return to a situation where the teaching of these basics is subsumed again into a process of osmosis would destroy another generation of primary schoolchildren in the same way that the children of the seventies were failed.

Of course, we need to get the balance right, and I argued last week that we can do so with primary testing, but the Primary Review is not about getting the balance right; it is about reversing the changes of the last twenty years and returning our schools to a time when there was no public accountability and the basics were largely subsumed into other lessons.

Ministers and their Tory shadows need to start saying so, and doing so loudly.

This post has been picked up by the Reading Reform Foundation.

1 comment:

Geraldine Carter said...

This is a very worrying development but there has been enormous opposition
to synthetic phonics by the Establishment in spite of its successful
implementation in many schools. SATs tests have been too prescriptive - not
actually testing on those basic skills that need to be in place - and
schools which lack confidence have suffered great impoverishment. Six
serious mistakes in the implementation of Rose, imo:
i. No effective pressure has been put on ITTs to teach their students how
to teach reading. Unless a way is found to tackle this situation, Whole
Language is likely to flourish unabated.
ii. Advisors on the implementation of Rose recommendations were drawn from
the inner circle - largely from the generation that had embraced Whole
Language for decades. Two days' introduction to synthetic phonics turned
out to be a woefully inadequate training.
iii. The insistence of DCSF in producing their own hastily constructed
materials led, inevitably, to a 'manual' more complex and lengthier than
necessary. Letters and Sounds drew heavily on excellent and much loved SP
programmes - honed and revised over many years through use in the classroom.
Inevitably these superior 'trailed and tested' programmes have been
sidelined.
iv. Reading Recovery, the universally-criticised remedial arm of Whole
Language, has been widely introduced and its proprietors are aggressively
planning to extend influence throughout primary school (see their ECAR
pronouncements). Not only is it the antithesis of synthetic phonics, its
cost is phenomenal. At around 10% of the cost, extended practice in the
sub-skills of synthetic phonics has proved far more effective for struggling
readers.
v. The term 'Synthetic Phonics' has been dropped by Ed Balls and by DCSF
(except in the case of Rose himself). This has allowed bit-phonics to enter
the equation. The kind of eclectic phonics that Whole Language proponents
accept and the kind of phonics that was included in the ill-fated
'Searchlights' model which the Rose Report attempted to eradicate.
vi. The SATs tests were not fit for purpose. Much simpler tests need to be
devised that demonstrate exactly what pupils have learned - as in a music
exam. Tests, moreover, that cannot be manipulated and are proof against
'teaching to the test'.