No 63, Winter 2007
THE GREAT READING DISASTER
The Great Reading Disaster: Reclaiming Our Educational Birthright by (Professor) Alice Coleman and Mona McNee is not just about reading. It chronicles the long war between 'progressive' educationists and those who advocate teaching based on evidence of what works.
The word 'progressive', the authors explain, has been separated from its true meaning and used to 'cast a rosy glow over what has really been a regressive decline'. The confusion created by 'progressives' over the teaching of reading has had a disastrous effect on standards. Any phonics taught as part of a 'progressive' approach tends to be 'analytic phonics', which prioritises whole words, then 'analyses' or breaks them down into constituent parts.
Now, the term 'synthetic phonics' is used to differentiate from that. 'Synthetic phonics' means that, instead of trying to read whole words, children are taught to prioritise the letters and combinations of letters, and the sounds they represent. (How can you read a word accurately without first looking at every single letter?) These are subtle variations, but they have a massive effect on results.
The Great Reading Disaster includes chapters on progressivism, teacher training, local education authorities, central government, publishers and the media, voluntary organisations (including the Campaign for Real Education), conspiracy theories and testing. Political attempts to improve the system against the customary backlash from the 'progressive' establishment are also covered.
Mystified parents, teachers, school governors and employers seeking to understand state education will find many answers in this book. It has 341 pages and costs £17.95 from bookshops or the publishers, Imprint Academic, PO Box 200, Exeter EX5 5YX. Or borrow it from your local library?
The government's Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme sounds sensible – drawing in a mixture of public and private finance to rebuild and refurbish school buildings. There are, however, some very questionable implications for good schools.
Local authorities seeking BSF funding must sign a 'Memorandum of Understanding' with Partnerships for Schools (PfS). Despite its appearance of independence, PfS is owned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and jointly funded by the DCSF and Partnerships UK. The latter deals with the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) aspects.
Local authorities must also submit a 'Strategy for Change' document to show the scope of their BSF 'transformation plan'. When this has been assessed by PfS, it is passed to the DCSF for ministerial approval. Funding, it seems, will not be granted unless 'progressive' requirements are being met.
Documents recently published by Wolverhampton City Council reveal some of the hidden strings attached to BSF. Last year, under 35% of young people educated in Wolverhampton schools achieved 5 or more grade A*-C GCSEs including English and maths, compared with a national average of 46%. It is hoped that £300m of funding from BSF will raise Wolverhampton's percentage to 64% by 2017.
Wolverhampton has already made 8 appointments to its BSF Project Team and 'the capacity of the Team will need to be increased'. There will be revenue costs 'up to approximately £3.5m' for 'planning and procurement'. This £3.5m must be found locally, so presumably it is taken from the local education budget.
To get its funding, the local authority will 'Establish an Academy' and 'Promote Federations, Trusts or Trust-like arrangements'. It will deliver 'personalised learning' and ensure 'effective integration of education and other services' (ie clinics offering free condoms in schools). Plus 'a movement towards project-based, rather than discipline-based [ie subject-based] learning'.
The curriculum will reflect the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's model of 'research skills, thinking skills, social skills and personal attributes...' There will also be 'a remodelled school workforce' and emphasis on computerised learning.
All these 'progressive' buzzwords strongly suggest that BSF has another agenda, apart from raising standards and improving choice. Considering the huge amounts of taxpayers' money involved, isn't it now time for a serious and fully independent investigation?
BRITAIN FALLING FURTHER BEHIND
The recently published Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which compares the reading abilities of children from more than 40 countries, shows that pupils in England have slumped from 3rd place in 2001 to 19th place in 2006.
Commenting on this, ministers blamed parents for allowing children too much choice over how they use their spare time, and children for choosing computer games instead of books. But aren't ministers themselves leading the shift from books to computerised learning?
Recent results from another international study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) are also disturbing. In maths, British 15-year-olds had fallen from 8th position to 24th. In science, they had slumped from 4th position in the year 2000 to 14th in 2006.
NEW GUIDANCE ON TEACHING READING
Literally decades after the 'Reading Disaster' was first highlighted by Mona McNee, educational psychologist Martin Turner, and others, the inefficient – and subversive – DCFS has now published guidance on the most effective method of teaching children to read. Entitled Letters and Sounds and based on synthetic phonics, it comprises two booklets and a CD, which are free to teachers and schools.
This replaces the flawed guidance of the National Literacy Strategy (NLS), Progression in Phonics and Playing with Sounds, which was largely based on analytic phonics. The failures of the NLS were highlighted in a pamphlet, After the Literacy Hour by Tom Burkard, published by the Centre for Policy Studies in 2005: from the introduction of the NLS in 1998 to 2005, the education department's own figures showed that almost 1.2 million 11-year-olds had left primary schools unable to read to expected standards.
This shift in the government's prescribed teaching method is a major step forward, thanks to years of campaigning by many dedicated individuals, including those above and Jenny Chew, Irina Tyk, Chris Jolly, Sue Lloyd, Ruth Miskin, and Debbie Hepplewhite and her Reading Reform Foundation colleagues. Nationally, it could bring a massive improvement in standards and many other benefits.
However, at this stage, it is important to note that, in addition to the government's publications, there are several independently produced books and reading schemes on the market (see back page). They cost a few pounds, but all are written by practitioners with proven records of success. Some are updated editions of books that were written several years ago, when publishers had allowed themselves to be misled by the establishment's deceitful propaganda against genuine phonics. So authors of the early books had no option other than to publish their works privately. Their recommended methods of teaching have not changed – just the general presentation of the books. All are highly recommended.
Meanwhile, just before Christmas, two well-respected researchers, Professor Rhona Johnston and Dr Joyce Watson from St Andrew's University, confirmed results from earlier studies. They compared the reading abilities of children in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, where synthetic phonics (which emphasises letters and sounds) is compulsory, with similar children in the north of England, who were taught under the NLS. Within weeks of entering primary school, the children in Scotland were pulling ahead of those in England. By the time they were 10-years-old, the children in Scotland were better at word reading, spelling and comprehension than those in England. Test results showed that the children in Scotland had 'reading ages' about two years ahead of those taught in England (www.st-andrews.ac.uk/news).
Is it too much to hope that teacher training colleges will now take account of such evidence?
AND A 10-YEAR PLAN
In mid-December, Ed Balls, Gordon Brown's new education secretary, announced yet another series of reforms. They focus on children from birth to 19 and include parenting classes, a national play strategy, plus police officers and health and social workers in schools.
The primary curriculum is to be revised, supposedly to allow more time for teaching the 3Rs. Yet primary schools are now expected to teach foreign languages.
Subjects such as geography and history may be integrated – as required by 'progressives' who seek to undermine the structure and content of individual subjects. Perhaps most disturbing of all, ministers have surrendered to the 'progressive' teaching unions' fear of accountability. In the current system, all children take national tests at ages 7, 11 and 14, and each school's average results for 11 and 14 year-olds are published annually. This isn't perfect, but it does allow parents and others to check whether schools are effective or not. It highlights the schools that excel and those that are letting down their pupils. Under the new system, tests will be taken when teachers decide children are ready (to 'pass'), regardless of their ages. This will make it impossible to judge the overall effectiveness of individual primary schools.
At secondary level, changes to GCSEs and A-levels, along with the promotion of diplomas, will blur the differences between secondary schools. Ministers are gradually dismantling all hope of measuring standards over time, or on an individual basis. Shouldn't we all be asking why?
EXAMS TO GET EASIER
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which oversees the national curriculum and exams, has announced that from 2009, GCSE qualifications are to be split into separately examined units, which candidates can retake to allow their best mark to count towards their final grade. Foreign language candidates will be offered the option of short course GCSEs covering only listening and speaking, but no reading or writing. Two short courses will count as one full GCSE.
Schools and colleges are also to be given an extra £1,000 for each candidate entered for a diploma – the new qualification which includes both academic and vocational courses. Some diplomas will count as 3.5 A-levels. Why don't ministers admit they plan to replace GCSEs and A-levels?
CHOICE, WHAT CHOICE?
Figures from 78 local authorities obtained by The Sunday Telegraph (4 November 2007) show how difficult it has become for families to get a place for their child in a good secondary school.
The school with the most applicants for each of its places was Al-Hijrah, a Muslim school in Birmingham: 997 children applied for 60 places – 16 applicants for each place. Second most oversubscribed was Haberdashers' Aske Hatcham Academy in Lewisham with 2,368 applicants for 208 places. As would be expected, the table accompanying the article included several grammar schools. But other types of school stood out: Mossbourne Academy in Hackney had 1,237 applicants for 180 places. (Mossbourne operates what is called a 'fair banding' system: each year, applicants for places take voluntary tests on a Saturday, so the school can offer places to an equal number of pupils from each ability band.) Thomas Telford CTC in Telford had 1,141 applicants for 168 places. St Mark's Catholic School in Hounslow had 907 applicants for 186 places.
Still the same old story – too few good schools.
CHAOS IN NORTHERN IRELAND
In her haste to destroy Northern Ireland's 69 grammar schools, Sinn Fein education minister Caitriona Ruane is creating chaos. From 2009, she has announced, secondary schools will be required to select their pupils on the basis of locality and family connections, instead of academic ability. Ms Ruane, incidentally, lives in Eire, where all schools are comprehensive. Her own daughter attends a Northern Ireland grammar school.
Apparently, she has not yet decided whether secondary schools will remain as institutions for 11-18 year-olds, or whether they will be divided into 11-14 and 14-19 schools. Either way, 14-year-olds will be expected make their own choices about whether they study academic or vocational subjects, or a mixture of both. Ms Ruane claims her plans accord with Northern Ireland's 'full reform agenda, including the phasing in of the revised curriculum' and 'the entitlement framework which expands the range of subjects'.
Meanwhile, 25 of Northern Irelands' 69 grammar schools are considering setting their own admission tests to replace the outlawed 11-plus.
Birmingham: Birmingham City Council is to co-sponsor 7 academies along with the BBC, Birmingham City University, the King Edward VI Foundation, the Ormiston Trust, the Brit School in Croydon and Maverick TV. Birmingham is also opening the first 'fully selective' academy, to specialise in the performing arts. Applicants will have to audition and show aptitude for performing arts to win a place. West Midlands Eastside academy will cater for 950 pupils aged 14-19. Good PR and spin. But will it all raise standards?
Lincolnshire: Boston Grammar School for boys and Boston High School for girls officially merged or 'federated' in September, though new buildings for the combined schools, to be funded under the BSF programme, are still several years away. Admissions to the combined schools have been cut from 207 in 2006, to 154 in 2007 out of an eligible cohort of around 750 11-year-olds. In our last newsletter we reported that John Neal, the head of the boys' school, was taking early retirement. This was based on a letter sent to parents in the summer. But it wasn't true. Parents have since learnt that when the letter was sent, Mr Neal had already agreed to voluntary redundancy, unbeknown to either governing body. Documents suggest his redundancy payment was perhaps £200,000, but the amount is not yet confirmed. This paved the way for Helen McEvoy, the head of the girls' school, to be appointed 'executive head' of both schools with a considerably increased salary. From the beginning, both heads had worked in secret to promote the merger (see Newsletter, Winter 2006). So should Lincolnshire County Council and CfBT, which runs its 'School Improvement Service', be using taxpayers' money to reward heads for promoting a political, anti-choice agenda? And why should the parents, led by Phillip Bosworth, Charles Campion and Debbie Evans, still be waiting for information requested last August under the Freedom of Information Act? By law, such requests should be answered within 21 days.
Stoke-on-Trent: Stoke's schools are managed by the local authority and Serco, a private company specialising in computer software. Standards are generally poor. In 2006, only 33% of youngsters gained 5 or more A*-C GCSEs including English and maths, against a national average of 46%. Now it is proposed that all 17 secondary schools in Stoke should be closed and re-opened as part of a £200m plan to reform local schools. This would also mean the closure of St Joseph's College, a popular and successful grammar school and the only one in the area. Because the law precludes the opening of new grammar schools, the effect of this would be the loss of yet another grammar school. Parents, governors and most importantly, the head of St Joseph's, Roisin Maguire, are campaigning vigorously to keep their school as it is. More than 1,500 attended a meeting at the school and a petition supporting its retention on the Number 10 website was signed by almost 3,500 supporters within 4 weeks. The council's decision is expected early in 2008.
Suffolk: Clare Middle School and Technology College in Suffolk needs to change its age-range from 8-13 to 11-16 as the area is changing from a 3-tier system to a more standard 2-tier one. But despite claims by politicians about their 'green' credentials, Suffolk County Council may close Clare Middle School and compel local children to travel up to 20 miles each day to and from schools in Haverhill or Sudbury. Parents living in Clare are understandably upset and the school governors have decided to apply for trust status. If their application is successful, they should be able to keep their school open. And expand it to meet local needs.
The Butterfly Book: A Reading and Writing Course by Irina Tyk is an update of a well-proven favourite. Suitable for parents and teachers, it costs £9.50 from Civitas, 77 Great Peter Street, London SW1P 2EZ.
Phonics: The Easy Way by Annis Garfield is especially suitable for parents wanting to teach children to read before they start school. Published by Vermilion/Random House, it costs £12.99 from bookshops.
Step by Step Reading by Mona McNee sold over 21,000 copies in its original form. £13.49 from Galore Park Publishing Ltd, 19/21 Sayers Lane, Tenterden, Kent TN30 6BW. Tel. 01580 764242.
Books whose publishers offer additional teaching materials, teacher training and informative websites include:
The Phonics Handbook: A Handbook for Teaching Reading, Writing and Spelling by Susan Lloyd. £19.95 from bookshops or Jolly Learning Ltd at www.jollylearning.co.uk. Tel. 0208 501 0405.
Bear Necessities Book A1 by Hilary and Tom Burkard is part of the Sound Foundations/Dancing Bear Series. Details from Sound Foundations at www.soundfoundationsbooks.co.uk. Tel. 01603 881158.
Sound Discovery by Dr Marlynne Grant is also a full programme with clear strands which are easy to introduce. Details from Synthetic Phonics Ltd at www.syntheticphonics.net. Tel. 01179 622670.
[Information Technology] is already being used at Key Stages 2 and 3 to deliver 'learning when I want, how I want and when I want'...The Local Authority has a strong track record in placing 'the learner at the heart of the system'. Building Schools for the Future: Strategy for Change - Part 1, Wolverhampton City Council, 2007.
The biggest challenge is probably not students but teachers. They have to be retrained to work in new ways, less as subject specialists and more as mentors and guides for students. They will require both contractual changes and a series of on going training programmes. The solution is to frame teacher work within a wider skills agenda and offer bespoke training with regard to specialised and identifiable skills that will be necessary to work in these new ways. Memorandum submitted by Dr Chris Gerry, chief executive, New Line Learning, Maidstone to the Education and Skills Select Committee, May 2007.
The school has undergone considerable instability since the announcement of its closure to create an academy. Twenty two staff sought new posts prior to the... December 2006 inspection and 12 were successful. Five more have left since the inspection. Five teaching posts remain unfilled and one member of staff is on long-term sickness. The posts are being covered by supply teachers. Special Measures: First Monitoring Inspection ofHartshead Sports College, Ashton-Under-Lyne, 27 April 2007.
A certificate in childcare is now worth five A*-C GCSEs... Labour ministers have privately confided that some inner city comprehensives which appear to have had dramatic improvements have simply had headteachers who persuade pupils to sit vocational courses. Daily Mail, 24 August 2007.
There is a real danger of overburdening schools and allowing their focus to move away from education to social issues. Both are important, but schools cannot solve all of society's problems or take on the responsibilities or roles of parents. Education can provide a refuge and opportunity for disadvantaged children, but their education must not be interrupted by the proximity of teams from other agencies. Time spent in education is an opportunity for children with social and family pressures in their lives to leave them behind, albeit for short periods. We must guard against increasing those pressures by making children immediately available to those concerned with other areas of their lives. We need to value education in its own right and see the acquisition of skills and knowledge as a way out of social deprivation not as a tool for further social engineering. Philip Parkin, Professional Association of Teachers' press release, 11 December 2007.
All schools public and private, must admit state inspectors and submit to the government's new educational system, or be closed and nationalised, with the state taking responsibility for educating their children... A new curriculum will be ready by the end of this school year and new textbooks are being developed to help educate 'the new citizen', said [Venezuela's] education minister Adan Chavez. The president's opponents accuse him of aiming to indoctrinate young Venezuelans with socialist ideology. But the education minister said the aim is to develop 'critical thinking', not to impose a single way of thought. Associated Press, 17 September 2007.
Many thanks to all those who supported us in 2007. A happy and successful New Year to you all.
/Campaign for Real Education, December 2007.