No 56, Summer 2005



When it was published earlier this year,  A seven year study of the effects of synthetic phonics teaching on reading and spelling attainment by Professor Rhona Johnston and Dr Joyce Watson implicitly exposed the ineffectiveness of the government’s National Literacy Strategy (NLS). Children in Scotland, who had been taught synthetic phonics-first were, on average, three and half years ahead of their chronological age in word-reading ability when they left primary school aged eleven.


By contrast, results from the NLS looked disgraceful, especially when the Centre for Policy Studies published Tom Burkard’s After the Literacy Hour. This showed that 1.2m children have failed to learn to read since the NLS was introduced and added to concerns already documented in the Education Select Committee’s   report, Teaching Children to Read (TSO, 2005).


Unable to ignore all this, ministers have announced a new inquiry into the teaching of reading, which will be headed by Jim  Rose. But when ministers and Department for Education and Skills (DfES) officials routinely ignore evidence that contradicts their  ideology, can we trust them now?    


Meanwhile, in an experiment overseen by Ruth Miskin and filmed by BBC Newsnight, Britannia Village Primary School,  situated in a deprived area of East London, has added up to 2 years to the reading ages of some  pupils after just 16 weeks of synthetic phonics. Prior to the experiment, 70% of Britannia’s 8 and 9 year-olds were two years or more behind with their reading.  




Both we and the National Grammar Schools’ Association have received more complaints than usual this year about secondary school admissions. Most of the parents seeking advice were facing appeals panels and the actions of their Local Education Authorities (LEAs) were often highly questionable. Yet it was noticeable that whenever the unreasonable behaviour of an LEA was exposed, the LEA backed down and allowed  parents their first choice – usually  before the appeal hearing had even taken place! 


Many problems were caused by the government’s  ‘co-ordinated’ admissions policies, which have shifted control from schools and back to LEAs.


Parents seeking a place for their child in a grammar school faced particular difficulties, mainly caused by a ministerial/DfES requirement that parents must nominate their preferred school  before they are allowed to know whether their child has passed the 11-plus. As 11-plus tests are taken in October or November of the year prior to entry and most results are known (but only to the authorities) within around 2 weeks of the test being taken, such requirements are cruel and discriminatory.    


It is not yet known whether appeals have gone up this year. But some parents have threatened legal action, so ministers and the DfES are already consulting on a more reasonable Code of Practice. If this is approved, admissions should become a little more consumer-friendly, at least for some.          




In February, the government rejected Mike Tomlinson’s recommendation that A-levels and GCSEs should be subsumed into an over-arching, continental-style diploma. A-levels were ‘here to stay’ and in the White Paper, 14-19  Education and Skills, education secretary  Ruth Kelly promised to look again  at what, if anything, would add value to existing A-levels.  This, of course, was in the run-up to an election. 


Whilst Barry Sheerman MP, chairman of the Education Select Committee, wrote that it was ‘perfectly acceptable to retain the comfort blanket of the A-level as part of a wider diploma’, an anonymous source admitted to the TES (18 February) that the government was worried about ‘certain newspapers accusing ministers of dumbing down if they get rid of A-levels and GCSEs’.


Now, back in power, Ruth Kelly has  hinted  to the Press Association (29 May) that the future of A-levels will be considered yet again in 2008.  This has given new hope to progressives, who can’t wait to see A-levels disappear. For them, the benefits are obvious: new opportunities to blur the distinction between high-achievement and ‘bog-standard’; an end to ‘old-fashioned’ standards, with which people make unwelcome comparisons; plus another leap towards  egalitarianism.


Ken Boston, head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), has backed abolition, as has David Bell, the head of Ofsted.  On 22 June, Mr Bell told The Times that ministers would face growing pressure to abolish GCSEs and A-levels – that ‘practice might outstrip policy’.     




Where will the next generation of UK mathematicians come from? is the preliminary report of a meeting held in Manchester in March. It was organised by Professor Alexandre Borovik of Manchester University and Dr Tony Gardiner of Birmingham University.


Their report stresses that ‘the present situation is far more serious than is generally admitted’. Also that: “The UK mathematics community now falls far short of ‘reproducing itself’ – as evidenced by the dramatic fall in the number of students taking A-level Mathematics and Further Mathematics; the declining number and quality  of students entering highly numerate university courses; the lack of qualified mathematics teachers; the shortage of high quality IT specialists; the narrowness of the UK mathematics PhD; and the apparent need to import large numbers of research mathematicians.”


The authors generally agree with Professor Adrian Smith’s, Making Mathematics Count (TSO, 2004). But they stress that the solution is not ‘simply easing the apparent demands of A-level mathematics’. Instead, there is an urgent need to strengthen the foundations laid in primary and secondary schools and a concerted programme of professional development. Also, the education system must ‘address the needs, and cultivate the aspirations, of more able students (say the top 25%)’, by devising an appropriate curriculum and assessment framework.  


Soon after this, The Sunday Times (10 July) reported that the QCA  had reduced the pass mark in one of this year’s national maths tests for 14-year-olds down to 22.5%. Last year the pass mark for this ‘higher-tier’ paper – taken by the brightest 28% of pupils seeking the top levels – was 31%.  The majority of pupils, who take a less difficult test, require 54% to  reach the required standard.


It was also noted that youngsters taking an Edexcel GCSE maths exam last year could get an A-grade with only 45%. This prompted a letter two weeks later from Professor Emeritus Alan Crowe asking, ‘what grade would be awarded to a candidate who obtained 90% or better?’  Exactly. And what would happen  if an accountant got more than half his calculations wrong? Or a structural engineer? 




On 10 May, The Daily Telegraph reported that although only 15% of A-level candidates come from independent schools, they achieve a disproportionate share of the A-grades in ‘harder’ subjects: 60% in modern languages, 48% in chemistry and 46% in physics and maths. Indeed, the widening gap in performance between independent and state schools is causing  many university courses in languages, sciences and maths to become increasingly dependent on private schools for their survival.


On 26 June, The Sunday Telegraph reported on the answer to a Parliamentary Question asked by James Clappison MP. Between 1995 and 2004, the number of students achieving 3 A-grade A-levels has increased from 12,698 to 23,953. Last year, 16.4% of  youngsters achieving this level came from England’s 164 grammar schools, 37.7%  from independent schools and 27.5% from comprehensives. A further 18.4% were from the FE sector. Grammar schools were the only type of school significantly to increase their share of 3 straight As – up from 12.9%  of the total in 1995 to 16.4% in 2004.

This information came soon after The Sunday Times (29 May) had exposed a confidential 44-page list of schools, which had been circulated to admissions staff at King’s College, London. King’s is a top university with an annual intake of 3,200 students, 70% of whom are from state schools. To meet government requirements, King’s  must increase this percentage to 76%. 


So its list ranks each school according to how pupils’ average A-level scores differ from the national average. With the help of the list, ‘notional’ bonus points awarded to applicants from under-performing schools can lift their A-level scores by the equivalent of  five grades across three subjects. Many top state schools are included on the list and some independents. Their applicants are presumably passed over, so King’s can reach its target for admitting applicants from under-performing schools.


Medical schools, too, are manipulating their intakes. Dr Kailash Chand, a leading member of the BMA, told The Daily Mail (26 May) that universities are operating ‘secretive’ selection policies to discriminate against applicants from independent schools.


But will sticking-plaster solutions ever make things  better? 




Another significant report, Teacher Turnover, Wastage and Movement Between Schools by Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, was published in May.


The researchers looked at employment trends in 888 primary schools and 341 secondaries. In 2004, teacher turnover in primary schools averaged 14.7% of which 10% was wastage. In secondary schools, the turnover rate was 12.5% of which 7.2% was wastage. One primary school in London had lost all its staff twice in one year.


Early retirements have risen by 40% since 2002 and account for over a third of both primary and secondary headteacher resignations. A link to the full report is available at


In the meantime, the government boasts it has increased the teaching force by more than 4,000 to 432,000. But using DfES figures, Select Education, a recruitment agency, calculates that the number of British-trained, fully qualified teachers has risen by only 1% since 1997. The number of unqualified teachers has risen by 500% (Daily Express,  11 May).




If the government and those controlling state education genuinely favour raising standards over ‘equality of result’ (which has rightly  been described as a Marxist concept), why have they banned the  International GCSE in state schools? 


The International GSCE in maths is considered more rigorous than ordinary GCSEs:  it includes no  coursework, it has been adopted by more than 200 independent schools, and it is recognised by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).  Yet it is not included in the QCA’s list of approved qualifications – though certificates for ‘wired sugar flowers’ and ‘aspects of  multicultural fashion’ are! Nor are International GCSE results allowed to count in school performance tables.      


An article in The Sunday Telegraph (19 June) says  it all: “David Benjamin, the head of maths at the Norton Knatchball School, in Kent, which had hoped to switch to the International GCSE in September, was told it was out-of-bounds for the grammar school. ‘It really is unfair’, he said,  ‘particularly when the qualification best suits the needs of our pupils, and ministers are always telling schools to tailor courses to suit individual children.  Half my pupils go on to do maths A-level and the specification offered by the International GCSE would be much better for them.’” 




Prince Charles has questioned the need for the QCA’s ‘great debate’ on the teaching of English, including the need to teach ‘texting’ and instant messaging, at the expense of the classics and other demanding literature. Dismayed by the pursuit of ‘relevance’ rather than the transmission of a body of knowledge and our cultural heritage, the Prince is considering setting up a new teacher training college.


This is excellent news! Alternative, more rigorous, teacher training, in addition to that already offered at Buckingham University, will benefit the whole system. 




The number of children educated at home has almost doubled in the last five years. Parental concerns about poor discipline, bullying and amoral sex education are causing many more parents to take advantage of their legal right to educate their children at home, rather than send them to school. Between 1999 and 2004, the number of home-educated 5-16 year-olds has shot up from 12,000 to 21,000.  Home-schoolers reckon that by 2015, around 150,000 children could be educated at home, equivalent to 1 child in 30.




Barnsley: Barnsley is one of the worst LEA’s in England for the percentage of  pupils achieving 5-plus A*-C GCSEs. So all its comprehensive schools may become ‘Advanced Learning Centres’ (Yorkshire Post, 6 June).  If councillors approve, the LEA will get £150m to rebuild every secondary school as part of the government’s  ‘Building Schools for the Future’ scheme.


Gloucestershire: When the governing Labour/Liberal-Democrat coalition in Gloucestershire planned to reduce  grammar school places, to merge the girls’ comprehensive, Barnwood Park, with the boys’ Central Technology College, and to close special schools, local Conservatives acted more responsibly. Having campaigned against these proposals, they won control of the County in May and the LEA is now headed by Councillor Jackie Hall, a staunch supporter of parental choice.    


Kent: Kent LEA has invited all its headteachers to take a trip to the USA to learn how their schools teach IT (Information Technology).  All except 11 of the 106 heads have accepted and each will spend £1,500 from the school budget to pay for the trip. In Seattle, the heads will be joined by 20 councillors and officials, costing the LEA another £30,000.  Parents have described the trip as ‘disgraceful’ and ‘a waste of money’. But the head of Dartford Grammar School for Boys, Tony Martin,  says the trip will benefit students and the money will come from the teacher-training budget. Another head, who refused to go and wanted to remain anonymous, said: ‘I do not feel it would be right to be out of school for a week on a trip that will cost the school more than £1,000.’


Newcastle:  Noting that more than 350 teachers were attacked by children and parents in the North East last year, The Journal (9 June) has expressed surprise that no-one is saying what is obvious: the main reason many pupils and parents abuse teachers is ‘simply because they can’.  Except in the most extreme case, anyone can attack a teacher, knowing they are safe from any real sanctions. The Journal offers good advice: “Until this situation is addressed, you can tinker with the National Curriculum to give teachers more scope to ‘inspire’  pupils and put in all the security hardware you like, but it will make little difference.”


NorfolkOn 28 June, the Norwich Evening News reported that Norfolk LEA  had approved its new Religious Education (RE) guidance, two months after its plans made news around the world – because they were so ridiculous. The new guidance recommends that teachers do not use the term ‘Old Testament’ because it sounds old-fashioned. Or the ‘Holy Ghost’, because it is too spooky.  Nor should they explain that the Eucharist represents  the body and blood of Christ, because it suggests that Christians are cannibals.  Fred Corbett, assistant director of children’s services and clerk to the Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education (SACRE), said the new guidance had ‘strong support from teachers’,  who have ‘warmly welcomed it’. 




The Butterfly Book: A Reading and Writing Course by Irina Tyk is phonics based and offers a structured series of lessons. Cheques for £24 inc. p. & p. to Mrs Irina Tyk, 55 Elmfield Road, Potters Bar, Hertfordshire EN6 2JL.


Newsletter 55, Summer Term 2005 from the Reading Reform Foundation  includes recent information  and research evidence on the teaching of reading.  For hard copies, telephone  01784 435664  or at  


The Sexual Health Crisis in the United Kingsdom is a written record of presentations made on 28 June by Dr Angela Robinson, Dr Trevor Stammers, Professor David Paton and Dennis Wrigley. Free from the Maranatha Community, 102 Irlam Road, Manchester M41 6JT. Or email:


Sexual Spin: Sorting fact from fiction about sexually transmitted infections is a leaflet written by Dr Trevor Stammers. It will be circulated through clinics, surgeries and secondary schools and  extra copies cost £4.00 for 25. From the Family Education Trust, Jubilee House, 19-21 High Street,  Whitton, Twickenham TW2 7LB.


Comments on Cannabis, Mental Health and Classification  and Cannabis and Cancer  by  Mary Brett include many references highlighting the dangers of  drug abuse.  Free by email from 


Remotely Controlled by Dr Aric Sigman (forthcoming) describes television as the greatest health hazard of our generation, not least because most children have more contact with TV characters than with their parents. It will be published by Vermilion on 6 October and will cost £9.99 from bookshops.




The Massey report, which looked at End of Key Stage 2 assessments from 1996 to 1999, called the rise in reading ‘illusory’…It would seem that over the years, the percentage of children achieving Level 4 or above in English should have risen from 48% to 58%,  not the figure of  75% recorded by the QCA.  Standards in English schools: changes since 1997 and the impact of government policies and initiatives. A report for The Sunday Times by Professor Peter Tymms, Dr Robert Coe and Dr Christine Merrell, CEM Centre, University of Durham,  April 2005. 


One in five firms is losing business because of language and cultural barriers with the non-English speaking world, says a report by the National Centre for Languages. Isabella Moore, the centre’s director, said that even the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office were suffering from a shortage of graduate applicants fluent in at least one modern foreign language. The Daily Telegraph, 5 July 2005


In fact there is no evidence that setting by ability works either for the most or the least able – indeed, there is evidence that the reverse appears to be true.  Changing schools, changing teachers by  Dr Mary  Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, 2005.   


I believe that a truly comprehensive education system is attainable and I know that headteachers, teachers, teaching assistants, catering and maintenance staff will help to create it. Ruth Kelly, Parliamentary Brief, June 2005


In spite of the Government’s insistence otherwise,  I see still see myself  as an educator first and foremost.  Not a social worker, not a psychiatrist, not a substitute parent and certainly not a police officer…Schools should be about education and not responsible for curing all of society’s ills. Jane Ireland (pseudonym),  headteacher,  TES,  29 July 2005.



 Many [girls] admitted to being ‘bolshie’ or ‘mouthy’, but explained it as their right to express themselves. “Lots of the girls were coming into conflict  with schools for ‘speaking their mind’”… Many had basic literacy problems.  Education Guardian, 19 July 2005.


Asked if he felt he had been wrong to change the law which put cannabis on a par with prescription drugs and anabolic steroids, Mr [David] Blunkett replied: ‘No, I don’t believe I was. I took the advice of the advisory council on misuse of drugs and their recommendation was very clear.’  The Daily Mail, 18 June 2005.


Schools are to be encouraged to provide breakfast. Does this absolve parents from feeding their children before they go out?  Mrs P. Gory-Dixon, Daily Telegraph letters, 15 June 2005.


Following its leaflet encouraging under-age sex, isn’t it time that somebody who cares about the well-being of children mounted a private prosecution against the Family Planning Association for its role as an accessory before the fact in a large number of crimes?  The Daily Mail, 11 June 2005. 


And finally…

Sincere thanks to all our supporters who have sent kind and generous donations towards our expenses. And do please keep sending us information. No need to be formal  – just let us know who it’s from!


/Campaign for Real; Education,  August 2005


Chairman: Chris McGovern.  Tel: 07757 715145.  Email:
Vice-Chairman: Katie Ivens.  Tel: 07990 997215
Treasurer: Dr WAD Freeman. Email:
Secretary: Alison McRobb. Email: