No 55, Spring 2005




Six years ago, on 4 February 1999, The Daily Telegraph reported the publication of a study by Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson into the effectiveness of different methods of teaching reading. The report was  unequivocal: ‘The gains made by children taught [synthetic phonics-first] for 20 minutes a day for 16 weeks were dramatic. They were seven  months ahead of their… age while those taught by methods similar to those in the Literacy Hour were six months behind.’ The research was there for anyone to see on  the Scottish Office’s website.


So even then, ministers and their officials at the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) knew that they were promoting inefficient methods of teaching reading. They did nothing.


A few weeks ago,  almost exactly 6 years after the original study was made public,  the Scottish Office published an update of the Johnston and Watson research. This records the progress made by the same children as they finished their primary education at 11. On average, those taught synthetic phonics-first are 3 years 6 months ahead of their chronological age in word-reading ability and 1 year 8 months ahead in spelling. In contrast with those taught under the National Literacy Strategy (NLS), boys have done as well as, or better than, girls and children from disadvantaged backgrounds have been successful too.


When The Daily Telegraph reported the latest findings on 12 February 2005, it noted that in 1997, when David Blunkett (then education secretary) and Professor  Michael Barber (directly in charge) were formulating the NLS, Chris Woodhead, who was then chief inspector of schools, tried to persuade them to recommend synthetic phonics-first. They refused to listen, ignored the evidence,   and instead took advice from their ‘progressive’ friends.


Yet none of this is rocket science. The key point is that when children are taught to read using synthetic phonics-first, they initially concentrate  only on the letters, the letter combinations and their sounds to read individual words. Under the NLS, they are taught to use several ‘strategies’, including  ‘context’ and ‘picture cues’. So under the NLS,  which has cost taxpayers around £700m (The Sunday Times, 10 April 2005), children get confused, demoralised and lose confidence.


Now, several years too late,  the Labour-dominated House of Commons Select Committee on Education and Skills has severely criticised the establishment and recommended further inquiries. Its report, Teaching Children to Read, includes a wealth of useful evidence and is available from The Stationery Office (or at www.parliament.uk).     



Government spin-masters were dealt another blow in March, when the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) published a new pamphlet on teaching reading by Tom Burkard. Using figures obtained from the DfES, the CPS calculated that almost 1.2 million children have  been failed by the National Literacy Strategy since 1998.


Where there has been improvement, it probably owes more to schools taking an independent line and using effective commercial programmes, such as Jolly Phonics, rather than the NLS.  In any event, it is difficult to understand how a figure of  almost 1.2 million 11-year-olds leaving primary schools having failed to reach expected basic standards can be counted a success.


After the Literacy Hour: may the best plan win! makes a strong case for concentrated synthetic phonics-first. It costs £5.00 from the CPS, 57 Tufton Street, London SW1P 3QL.



For several years, Professor Peter Tymms of the Curriculum, Evaluation and Management Centre  at Durham University has been questioning government claims that better national test results prove that standards in primary schools are rising. He and his colleagues use their own tests to provide more reliable indicators than the government’s national tests (see www.cemcentre.org).


Now the Statistics Commission, an independent   organisation set up to ‘ensure that official statistics are trustworthy’, has backed Professor Tymms. After analysing his research, the Commission has agreed that improvements in national curriculum test scores between 1995 and 2000 owed more to ‘teaching to the [national] test’ than to honest improvements in standards. Government test results ‘substantially overstated’ pupils’ progress and presented a ‘misleading picture’ (Daily Mail, 18 February  2005).


This is the second time recently that ministers have been criticised for publishing misleading  statistics. On the previous occasion, they sought to cover up the successes  of  the grammar schools.



One of Ruth Kelly’s first jobs as the new education secretary was to publish the government’s response to Mike Tomlinson’s proposals for exam reform. This she did in the White Paper, 14-19 Education and Skills published in February (£19.25 from The Stationery Office).


Fortunately, the government decided to retain GCSEs and A-levels and not to subsume them into the over-arching diploma recommended by Tomlinson. Nevertheless, a diploma will be introduced for those doing  vocational work – anathema to the teachers’ unions, who claim that not making the diploma universal will lead to a ‘two-tier’ education system.


In any event, many think 14 is too young to make important choices about which subjects to drop and which to carry on with. Complaints from parents are already starting. Even so,  to assist Ruth Kelly’s ‘transformation’ to a ‘world class’ curriculum, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) is seeking a new director of curriculum ‘to align vision with political expectations’, whatever that means. He or she will report directly to chief executive Dr Ken Boston, have 85 staff and an annual budget of £7.6m. The  salary is  c.£95,000 pa,  plus up to 15% bonus, plus perks.




Ministers frequently claim that international studies such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) are proof of our excellent standards. But such claims suffered a severe setback at the end of last year. 


On 7 December, The Daily Telegraph reported on the second round of the most recent PISA tests. This report, Learning for Tomorrow’s World, published by the OECD, compares test results from more than 250,000 pupils in 41 countries. Because the curriculum varies from country to country, all the pupils are tested on how well they can apply what they know to real-life situations.


The results showed that in 3 years, UK pupils have  dropped from seventh to eleventh in reading,  from eighth to eighteenth in maths and from fourth to eleventh in science. Apparently, UK pupils were handicapped in maths and science by a shortage of well-qualified teachers. Furthermore, in the UK, an education at an independent school offered greater advantages than anywhere else apart from Brazil and Uruguay.  


On 16 January 2005, The Sunday Telegraph revealed that candidates could get a B grade in a new GCSE maths exam by scoring only 17 per cent of the marks. Those scoring 45 per cent received an A grade.  


This exam, offered by the OCR board and taken last year by 7,500 pupils from 65 schools, was the  second tier of a simplified two-tier  system, where pupils aiming for A* and B grades take more difficult papers. Previously, those seeking top grades had to enter a three-tier system. Roger Porkess, a mathematician who designs syllabuses,  described the new exam as a ‘dreadful mess’. Kevin Evans, a maths teacher, complained that people were moving on to A-level with B grade GCSEs, but with ‘very weak knowledge’.


On 29 January, The Daily Mail reported that the marks required for an A grade for the AQA board’s GCSE higher tier maths paper had dropped from 65 per cent in 1997 to 57 per cent in 2002. The mark  required for a C grade on the same paper fell from 30 per cent to 21 per cent over the same period.  For the equivalent GCSE English exam, an A grade required 80 per cent in 1997, but only 66 per cent in 2002. The requirement for a C grade fell from 65 to 46 per cent over the same period.


Since 2002. some grade requirements have increased slightly, but they are still considerably behind those required in 1997.




An alarming decline in the number of entries in  ‘harder’ A-level subjects between 1997 and 2004 was revealed on 27 January, when James Clappison MP received a Written Answer to a Parliamentary Question (www.parliament.uk). Yet entries for Media Studies have more than doubled over the same period:














Biological Sciences












Media/Film/TV Studies




With schools already suffering shortages of well-qualified maths, science and foreign language teachers, and the needs of business and industry to consider, something is seriously wrong with current policies. Should anyone wonder why  university maths and science departments are disappearing? And why ministers are offering bribes to universities to accept under-qualified applicants? 




Millions of pounds have been donated by the private sector towards new city academies, though most building costs (and running costs)  are met by the state. Additional choice of schools is welcome. Yet many observers believe that academies  allow the government to spin an illusion of choice,  whilst denying most parents any real choice between faith or community schools, single-sex or co-educational, selective or comprehensive etc.    


In last year’s tests for 14-year-olds, 9 out of 11 city academies were among the worst-performing 200 schools in England. By contrast, 31 of the 32 schools adding the most value between the ages of 11 and 14 were grammar schools. Reading Girls Grammar School was the top performer and Dr Challoner’s Grammar School was the best school on the value-added scale (TES, 18 March). So why don’t ministers open more grammar schools  instead of undermining them?  




Almost 1 in 10 of the secondary schools inspected by Ofsted last year had pupils with ‘unsatisfactory or worse’ behaviour.  In 1997, 76 per cent of the schools inspected showed ‘good or better’ behaviour, but that percentage had dropped to 68 per cent by 2004. This year’s annual report from  chief inspector David Bell also records that 332 schools were on ‘special measures’ by last summer, 50 more than the previous year (Daily Express, 3 February).


Truancy, too, is still a huge problem. Despite £885m spent since 1997, the proportion of school days lost to unauthorised absences remains fairly static. Yet no-one seems to know, or care, how many pupils truant just because they can’t read.   




At least 60,000 pupils living in London and the South East had not been offered a place at a secondary school by 1 March, the promised date. Computer glitches were blamed for the failure of a  new ‘co-ordinated’ admissions system (Daily Mail, 28 February). But officialdom’s determination to circulate and recirculate applicants’ details  between LEAs to ensure each child receives only one offer cannot have helped.


More seriously, a survey by The Times (5 March) suggested that more than 70,000 parents would not get a place for their child at their chosen secondary school in September. Out of 112 LEAs surveyed, 18 said that at least 20 per cent of  parents did not get the school they wanted. Only 57 per cent of  parents in Southwark and 59 per cent in Westminster got a place at their chosen school. 


Some good news, though. The London Oratory School has won a High Court action against the ministerial ruling that parents could not be interviewed before their child was offered a place. Lawyers for the school argued that scrapping interviews would undermine its ‘essential Catholic ethos’.




The government has spent £2.5bn on computers in schools and plans another £1.5bn.  Yet a study published by the Royal Economic Society says: ‘Despite numerous claims by politicians and software vendors to the contrary, the evidence so far suggests that computer use in schools does not seem to contribute substantially to students’ learning of basic skills such as maths or reading’. The researchers, Thomas Fuchs and Ludger Wossmann of Munich University, analysed  the achievements of 100,000 15-year-olds in 31 countries (The Daily Telegraph, 21 March).   



Despite all the lesson-time and money spent on drug education in recent years, the number of children taking drugs has almost doubled since 1998. Figures compiled by Dr Russell Newcombe of Liverpool John Moores University suggest that last year, more than 25 per cent of all children aged between 11 and 15 had taken illegal drugs. In 1998, it was 14 per cent (The Sunday Express, 9 January). The number of people caught with cannabis has also soared since the government officially downgraded it, causing many youngsters to think cannabis has been decriminalised.  Of course, such increases are inevitable when drug education in schools is not based on prevention, but ‘harm reduction’ – accepting that children will try drugs, so lessons  emphasise how to try them ‘safely’.


Teaching ‘safe’ or ‘safer’ sex  is producing similar results. Despite £138m to fund the Teenage Pregnancy Unit, for the first time ever, the number of girls under the age of 15 having abortions is more than 1,000 a year and rising. In 2002,  the number was 1,075. In 2003, it was 1171, of whom 148 were under 14. Now, each year, around 3,500 girls under 16 have abortions (Mail on Sunday, 20 February). The incidence of sexually-transmitted diseases is soaring with 700,000 new cases diagnosed in 2003. Over the last 6 years, cases of chlamydia  have risen by 139 per cent and cases of  gonorrhoea have almost doubled.


Meanwhile, a Parliamentary Written Answer produced on 15 March for the shadow schools minister, Mark Hoban, tells its own story: in 2004-05, the DfES granted a total of £978,000 in funding to the National Children’s Bureau, a leading player in the promotion of non-judgmental drug and sex education.


Citizenship lessons are also a failure. In February, Ofsted published a report, Citizenship in secondary schools: evidence from Ofsted inspections (2003/04). Citizenship is described as ‘an emerging subject’, which is ‘beset by problems of definition’. ‘As yet, pupils’ achievement and the quality of teaching compare unfavourably with established subjects and there is little that is graded very good.’ And, the report admits, even Ofsted inspectors are guilty of  giving inconsistent advice to schools.  




Julie Kosmala, whose two daughters attend Somervale School, Midsomer Norton, is taking legal advice to defend her human rights as a parent. The school plans to offer fast-track appointments for girls to be supplied with abortifacient ‘morning-after’ pills (and for boys to get free condoms) without their parents’ knowledge.


The school’s plans follow national guidelines provided by the DfES, the Department of Health and the Teenage Pregnancy Unit.  Indeed, the Department of Health informs medical practitioners and educational professionals that they need not inform parents, even when they arrange abortions on children who are under 16.


Julie Kosmala’s  action  follows similar moves by Manchester mother  Sue Axon,  who is taking legal action to prevent the possibility of an abortion  being carried out on either of her young daughters without her knowledge.




Gloucestershire: Gloucester’s grammar schools  remain under threat, unless the Labour and Lib-Dem politicians determined to destroy them are ousted in the May elections. If political control does not change,  the 4 grammar schools will almost certainly be compelled to accept the loss of up to 120 places each year from their current admission levels. The LEA’s decision to merge the popular girls’ comprehensive, Barnwood Park, with  the boys’  Central Technology College to form a new co-educational comprehensive has now been referred to the adjudicator for approval, though  62 per cent of parents are hostile. The closure of 2 special schools,  Alderman Knight (which 26,000 voted to retain) and Belmont, has already been approved by the adjudicator.    


Hull: Graduates are being offered a 14-week crash course in French at Hull University to enable them to  teach French in schools. During the course, they will be paid £150 a week, receive a 2-week expenses-paid trip to France; and get a £4,000 golden handshake when they start teaching. No previous knowledge of French is required, though participants may already be qualified in another language (The Yorkshire Post, 21 March).   



● What should be done about state education? lists some of our suggestions to improve the state education system.  It can be downloaded (around  5 pages) at www.cre.org.uk.  Or  contact us for a hard copy.

● Newsletter No 54, Spring Term 2005 from the Reading Reform Foundation explains the reading debate and the research.  Free from Jennifer Chew, The Mount, Malt Hill, Egham, Surrey TW20 9PB. Or at www.rrf.org.uk

● Towards a Liberal Utopia? edited by Philip Booth includes a chapter by Professor James Tooley entitled ‘Education Reclaimed’ – ‘a dream of education without the state’.  £15 from the Institute of Economic Affairs, 2 Lord North Street, London SW1P 3LB. Also from the IEA, Economic Affairs, Volume 24 No 4, December 2004 devotes its first 36 pages to persuasive arguments in favour of  ‘Education for All’ through privatisation.  

● How to win your school appeal by Ben Rooney costs £9.99 at good bookshops.    




Project Story Time organised by the Queen’s English Society aims to promote classical stories  in primary schools.  Full details are available from Ian Bruton-Simmonds, Tel. 0208 671 6872 or 07818 074298.


The Schools Bible Project 2005 offers cash prizes to schools for essays by secondary pupils on New Testament events. (Required by 30 June.)  Details from Christian Projects/OCU, PO Box 44741, London SW1P 2XA.


WhichPhonics? offers independent training for teachers on the most effective ways to teach children to read. Further information at www.whichphonics.co.uk or telephone 01908 269990.



Synthetic phonics is a large part of what the National Literacy Strategy is about…It is not a pure synthetics approach, because it also teaches grammar, context and allows indirect inference about words…We looked at this in the Department in 2003 and had a phonics seminar…The outcome of that seminar was a decision that actually our approach was the best one. Education secretary Ruth Kelly to the Select Committee. Uncorrected transcript,  2 March 2005.


We have just had research presented to this Committee…that 75 per cent of Sure Start is not really making much difference. Select Committee chairman Barry Sheerman to schools minister Stephen Twigg. Uncorrected transcript, 8 December 2004.


The Anti-Bullying Alliance has been endowed with a massive £570,000 of taxpayers’ money, but to what effect? Bullying Online hasn’t seen any reduction in the number of complaints we get, which totalled more than 8,000 last year… Liz Carnell, director of Bullying Online, TES, 11 March 2005.


Hello, I’m currently on a BEd course at Goldsmiths and need some help if possible? I’m (sic) got to choose an aspect of the history curriculum and teach it in an antiracist/multi-cultural fashion. I’ve chosen the Romans – does anyone have any ideas that may help me? From the TES History Staffroom – an online chatroom for teachers, 15 February 2005.


And finally…

There are, of course, many excellent schools and teachers in the state sector. But they  are successful in spite of the system, not because of it. The system itself can only be improved by collecting, circulating and using up-to-date information. So please keep us informed.  Meanwhile, as ever, many thanks for your support.


/Campaign for Real Education, April 2005


Chairman: Chris McGovern.  Tel: 07757 715145.  Email: christopherjohnmcgovern@gmail.com
Vice-Chairman: Katie Ivens.  Tel: 07990 997215
Treasurer: Dr WAD Freeman. Email: anthony831freeman@gmail.com
Secretary: Alison McRobb. Email: alisonmcrobb@gmail.com