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Chris McGovern: The wasted years when phonics was a four-letter word


Reading standards in English primary schools appear to be improving. The five-yearly Progress in International Reading Literacy Study 2016 places our nine- to ten-year-olds in joint eighth position amongst 50 countries. This is up from tenth in 2011 and 15th in 2006. At this rate of progress we could soon be back to where we were in 2001 when we came third. That was the year when this particular version of cyclical testing started and it was before Tony Blair’s ‘Education, Education, Education’ policies began to have their full, degrading impact on standards.

The recent improvement follows the restoration of the systematic teaching of phonics for infants (‘synthetic phonics’). As Education Secretary, Michael Gove made this strategy a foundation stone of his revised National Curriculum. A Phonics Screening Check for six-year-olds now backs it up. Only 58 per cent passed when it was introduced in 2012. This year the pass rate rose to 81 per cent. Credit where credit is due – things are moving in the right direction on the literacy front.

What remains shameful, however, is that it took successive governments so long to recognise the centrality of phonics to teaching literacy. Thirty years ago, Martin Turner, an educational psychologist working for Croydon local authority, was sacked for reporting a decline in reading standards. He blamed the decline on the demise of phonics in favour of what was, then, a fashionable new approach known as ‘look and say’ or ‘real books’.

It was based on children having to recognise the shape of whole words rather than decoding their phonic components. This meant that a child might be able to read the word ‘hippopotamus’ but not ‘his’, ‘hot’ or ‘have’! ‘Real books’ could be read by learning to recognise the words in the book, but children were not provided with a phonics strategy for reading unknown or unremembered vocabulary.

Turner’s evidence alone made it blindingly obvious that he was right and that the ‘experts’ were wrong. His case was well publicised and he received support on the margins of the education debate, but this did not save him. He lost his livelihood.

Support for phonics survived, especially in the private sector, but only just. In effect, new teachers were trained to promote illiteracy rather than literacy. Small wonder that have we slipped into mid-table mediocrity on the OECD PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests for 15-year-olds. The educational establishment promoted ‘look and say’ with a passion that became more intolerant the more it led to failure. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, it is still defended by many in ‘the Blob’.

The latest reading results have been achieved in the face of this opposition. Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, told the Daily Telegraph: ‘Extraordinarily – despite all the evidence in favour of phonics – we faced opposition from various lobby groups: those opposed to testing; professors of education who had built a career out of the “look and say” approach, and the teaching unions.’

The minister has good reason to feel pleased, but he should not get too carried away with this chink of light in the educational darkness brought about by the Blob. It takes a couple of decades, at least, before educational improvement at primary school level impacts on a country’s economy.

He should also note that grammar school provision at secondary level in Northern Ireland seems to have had a positive effect on standards in its primary schools. The National Foundation for Educational Research administered the recent literacy tests and pointed out that ‘England’s performance . . . remained significantly below Northern Ireland’s [6th].’ This parallels equivalent tests (TIMMS) last year that placed Northern Ireland as the best-performing European country for primary school mathematics and sixth in the world.

The literacy test results for ten-year-olds should not be taken as proof of an educational renaissance in England, as the minister would have us believe.

Mr Gibb wrote in the Daily Telegraph: ‘They also reflect the raising of standards in schools more generally. This summer, secondary schools took the new, more demanding, GCSEs in English and maths, and despite claims that a fresh focus on core academic subjects would worsen outcomes for disadvantaged pupils, the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers has shrunk by 7 per cent since 2011.’

Such comment is disingenuous since he, of all people, is aware that, at the behest of the Blob, ‘the new, more demanding GCSEs’ had the ‘good pass’ bar placed as low as 15 per cent, with 25 per cent extra time for those one in six candidates who claimed to have special needs.

The educational establishment may have suffered a setback over phonics but, along the way, it has condemned too many children to illiteracy, and it remains a formidable barrier to progress. It is time it was held to account.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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