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Lecture - King's College, London - June 6th 2006

What's Politics Got To Do With It?

I’m thinking of putting myself up for the leadership of one of the three main political parties. I’m not sure which one at the moment, but then I’m not sure that it matters very much. I’ve figured out that one thing I’ve really got to get right is what I’m going to say about education. Well, actually, one thing I will be getting right is the fact that it’s education that I’ll be mentioning. After all, how absurd it would be for me to be putting myself up for this job, and not mention education?

OK, let’s take a step back here. What do I mean by the phrase ‘mention education’? Do I mean some kind of general stuff about how important it is for us to “enlarge the skills base”? Or that it’s necessary to give our youngsters the best possible start in life? Or perhaps talk about how it’s only when schools start teaching the difference between right and wrong again, that we’ll be able to sleep soundly in our beds? Should I be a little more specific and talk about how it’s only by returning schools to local control that we will lever up standards? Or should I be even more specific? Highly particular, in fact, and start talking about how the chanting method is the best way in which children should  be taught their times tables, or that downwards rather than horizontally is the best way of learning the periodic table?

Judging by the records of people wanting to be party leaders, or indeed have become one, all these ways of “mentioning education” seem to be fairly well road-tested. Now, why should this be? What is it about education that makes it such a must-pack in the present-day party leader’s suitcase?

Look at how David Cameron addressed the Conservative Party conference on October 4 2005. In a speech that covered the European Union,

World poverty:

“We don't just stand up for Gibraltar and Zimbabwe, but for the people of Darfur and sub-Saharan Africa who are living on less than a dollar a day and getting poorer while we are getting richer.”

And Inner city poverty:

 “I want to be able to say to the people living in our inner cities of all races and religions, grappling with the problems caused by family breakdown, poor housing, and low aspirations: "We know we have a shared responsibility, that we're all in this together, that there is such a thing as society; it's just not the same thing as the state."

…it was, let’s say, curious that in this speech, David Cameron’s very first concrete policy initiative – I think that’s what they’re called -  should have been synthetic phonics, which he got to via patriotism, freedom and aspiration.

“Aspiration is enabled by education; how cruelly it is disabled by Labour today, when one fifth of children leave primary school unable to write properly, when 1 million schoolchildren play truant each year and when the very essence of aspiration - social mobility - is going backward in this country.

There are far fewer children from state schools going to our best universities. And it's getting worse.

What have Labour done? Created an exam system where 16% means a pass, where parents of children in failing schools have no redress and no way out.

And we're now a country where failure is called "deferred success". The government introduced the national literacy strategy. It's a good idea. In fact, it was Gillian Shephard's idea.

But why can't children be taught to read with synthetic phonics, a method that works?

Treating every child as if they are the same fails the child who is struggling and the child who is not. So why can't we have streaming and setting, to help all children reach their potential?”

Yes, he hit synthetic phonics just 360 words in to the speech; his second policy initiative being to bring in streaming and setting and his third, you may remember, was to save special schools. Even more curious, is that these were the only three policy initiatives in the whole speech. Presumably, world poverty, inner city poverty and Europe will come later.

Now for all I know, this will prove to have been an incredibly successful strategy. As David Cameron walks into number 10 Andrew Marr and Nick Robinson and the rest will remind us of this speech and how it marked a turning point in ( let’s say they’ll say)  the history of the twenty first century, or something as equally non-hyperbolic.

But let’s look back at what Cameron was actually saying. The Labour party are responsible for one fifth of primary school children not being able to write properly. It’s significant, isn’t it, that no matter whether we agree with this statement or not, the proposition itself is not impossible. And that’s only because we’ve reached a point where it’s governments who sort out primary school writing. Let’s just hold that in our heads. This means that when I’m in a classroom working with some children on a poem, wondering if we’re going to talk about getting lost in the supermarket, I’m part of government policy. This is the status quo, the state we’re in.

Moving on, Cameron then says that there’s a problem with social mobility in this country and links this directly to the matter of state school children not going to what he calls the ‘best universities’. Presumably one is the consequence and not the cause of the other. That’s to say, the lack of social mobility, in Cameron’s book, is preventing state school students from going to, let’s say, Oxbridge, though saying ‘best’ is full of resonant vagueness. As it happens, the lack of social mobility has many consequences, but you know, I wouldn’t have thought that the low number of people going to Balliol from the comps in Hackney, was suitable meat and potatoes for a major political speech. But it is. I would have been wrong.

Next stop is the ‘16% is a pass’ statistic. I’m not sure where this comes from. One of my kids is 19, so he’s just gone through the whole system and I seem to remember that all the pass levels he came home with were the usual hoverings between 40 and 50. I’ve just marked some MA essays for one of the universities that is never called ‘our best’, and the pass was 50. Well, let’s say Cameron is right – he wouldn’t be fibbing – the implication of what he’s saying is that we desperately need more kids to fail exams. Only then will schools succeed. Perhaps someone will tell me that I’ve misunderstood something here.

And then, under the stewardship of David Cameron, with failure rates running at acceptably high levels, with schools that used to fail now succeeding, (presumably with the consequence that we’re back to that silly old Labour thing of too many kids passing too many exams), we’re going to have synthetic phonics. Well, as we now know, we are going to have synthetic phonics. This is because of the Blunkett principle. Hold on, you’re thinking, Blunkett’s gone to his lair to lick his wounds, it wasn’t him who introduced synthetic phonics. It was Ruth Kelly. Who’s also gone somewhere to lick her wounds. So it’ll be Alan Johnson. Unless he’s going to be the next John Prescott. In which case it’ll be someone else. No, the Blunkett principle is the one by which a Labour think-tank scans Tory Party think-tank statements and Daily Mail editorials and adopts these as Labour policy.

So let’s pause awhile and contemplate what’s happened here. The two major political parties are unanimous in implementing a policy that directs year 1 and 2 teachers in what they do and how they do it every working day of their lives. I know analogies are dangerous, but let’s see if we can find one. Doctors do medicine. As we know, the structure of their existence is directed from government, as are their budgets. But take, say, the case of MMR.  You’ll remember that Cameron and Kelly and the rest say that synthetic phonics works (we’ll come back to that in a moment) which of course is what the NHS says about MMR. But whereas synthetic phonics will be compulsorily delivered to every five year old -  yes, that’s all forty-four phonemes, not ten, not twenty, not thirty five, but forty-four – MMR is only delivered to the willing. So what is it about education that makes it so suitable for this kind of diktat while the nation’s health is less so?

I’ll leave that hanging in the air for the moment and come back to phonics. It’s notoriously hard to get a grip on literacy levels. Every year, national newspapers make hay with attainment levels thereby proving in an annual flash of statistical brilliance that some people are below average and some people are above it. A visit to the national literacy trust’s website will show you a wildly fluctuating needle on the literacy dial, where experts struggle to tie down concepts like ‘functionally illiterate’, ‘inadequate literacy’ and the like. One test showed with a stunning lack of cultural bias that ten per cent of people couldn’t understand the instructions on a packet of seeds, while in 2003 16% failed their GCSE English. (Ah perhaps that’s where David Cameron got his 16 per cent from?) Meanwhile, 12 % say they have problems with reading, writing and spelling but it’s less than 1% who, it’s claimed, I quote, ‘can be described as illiterate’.

Well, we all know how to juggle with these figures in ways that might show on the one hand that the UK is now jam packed full of people who can’t read and write, and on the other that we’re not doing too badly. But let’s get this clear, a system that manages to teach most people how to read is going to be changed because of the failure of the minority. So, if policy A mostly works but not entirely so, you replace it with policy B. But what if policy B succeeds with those who fail under A but creates another set of problems? Well,  that wouldn’t matter, you might say, if policy B is shown to cut the number of problems and failures.

And so we come to how governments use educational research.

Sue Ellis, a lecturer at the University of Strathclyde made the following observation on her study of the so called Clackmannan research project:

“The Clackmannan phonics research reported by Watson and Johnston (2004, 2005)

was an experimental trial to compare different methods of teaching phonics.  It wasn’t designed (despite media reports) to investigate whether phonics instruction provides a more effective ‘gateway’ to reading than a mixed-methods approach.  The researchers did not collect the range of data nor conduct the sorts of fidelity checks that would be required to address such a question.”

The Wider Context for Synthetic Phonics in Clackmannanshire:  Evidence to the Rose Committee of Inquiry into Methods of Teaching Reading

Susan Ellis, University of Strathclyde
September 2005

Let’s think about that. So, what went on in this research project wasn’t a test to find out whether synthetic phonics is the method that works better than methods currently in place. Well, well, well. So, we are about to switch a whole education policy affecting every single child in state education on the basis of research that cannot prove that this is desirable, necessary or indeed, will succeed. This is extraordinary, isn’t it?

But there’s more. When we look at what actually happened when the synthetic phonics programme was introduced in Clackmannan schools, we discover that there was in fact a whole range of interventions going on. This was a local authority initiative (oh not one of those beastly LEAs, we’re going to abolish them, aren’t we?) and involved, of course, a whole set of new resources and teacher training. But there was also staff development on general lesson planning, interactive teaching, importance of building on success, teaching of reading-writing links, developing literacy through play, and extra help with language enrichment activities. Home school link teachers were appointed to work with parents on literacy issues in four of the six pilot schools.

“These staff carried out home visits, ran story clubs and after-school homework clubs, worked with parent groups, set up library visits and borrowing schemes as well as working in classrooms.”

Sue Ellis was “told that parents particularly welcomed the emphasis on encouraging early writing and developmental spelling in the home."

“Schools were involved in a separate and concurrent initiative, the New Community Schools Initiative, introduced personal learning planning. This included some, but not all, of the early intervention schools.” 

It won’t surprise anyone here that the project also received some extra funding from the Scottish education office, and of course it’s not clear if this kind of extra funding would be available to everyone when universal synthetic phonics drops from on high.

Meanwhile, yet more things were going on in the Clackmannan schools:

The “supported voluntary  introduction of:

  • A thinking skills programme for older children, developed from Matthew Lipman’s Philosophy for Children programme.  This was introduced (and explained to the schools) as a specific initiative to bolster reading comprehension.  In this programme, philosophical discussions arise from joint reading of a common text. Children are invited to suggest and then discuss questions or things that puzzle them about the story events, themes or characters.
  • At some point, additional staff development on teaching comprehension and developing reasoning in P2 and up was introduced, and additional reading comprehension lessons for children in P2 and P3 were inserted into the programme.  This seems to have been in response to teacher feedback.
  • A spelling scheme was introduced.”

Now all this is extraordinary. We have absolute agreement within the country’s political establishment that there will be a major policy shift and that this policy shift is based on solid research and yet when one researcher takes a closer look at what actually happened, she finds that the conclusions drawn by the politicians are not ones that can be drawn from that particular project. And where are the eagle-eyed journalists rushing off to Clackmannan to unearth this? And how interesting that though synthetic phonics was introduced as the core method of teaching to read, the children were involved in a whole other set of procedures to do with learning how to read.  How would we know if some of these didn’t perhaps contribute something terribly important to the children’s success in reading?

I can just see it now. The next election will see Tory and Labour saying that they will implement synthetic phonics and what’s more they’ll appoint home school link teachers for every school and these staff will carry out home visits, run story clubs and after school homework clubs, work with parent groups and set up library visits and borrowing schemes. Perhaps not.

But there’s an obvious truth underlying all this, and it’s one that suits our politicians to ignore:  learning how to read is a complex and varied process and not all children do it in the same way. It’s a basic truth that David Cameron has grasped. Look again at what he said:

"But why can't children be taught to read with synthetic phonics, a method that works?

Treating every child as if they are the same fails the child who is struggling and the child who is not."

Have I got something wrong here? He says that every child will be treated as if they are the same when it comes to teaching them how to read, but then treating every child as if they are the same fails the child who is struggling and the child who is not. Actually, it’s me who’s struggling here. But then you’ll remember it’s because in the next sentence he says:

"So why can't we have streaming and setting, to help all children reach their potential?”

This sort of thing gets the blood coursing and the feet stamping but of course secondary education is already jam packed full of thousands of systems of selection, grading, streaming and setting. Cunningly, Cameron didn’t indicate whether he thought that now is the time to stream and set primary schools. Actually, I was streamed and set in primary school. I remember it well. At the end of what is now called year 5, our teacher told us that we were all very able and clever children but next year we wouldn’t be in the same classes. There was going to be one class for people who were good with their heads and one class that was good for people who were good with their hands. Miss Williams would teach the first class and Mr Baggs would teach the second. I was in Miss Williams class, the one for people with heads. It soon became clear what the difference between the two classes was: we spent every morning doing maths. Half of this was mental arithmetic where Miss Williams would bark out sums at individual kids and you had to bark the answers back at us. She had a way of moving round the class to catch anyone who was glancing out of the window or down at his shoelace. “Twenty four divided by three!” I think she was inspired by this:

Besides being possessed by my sister's idea that a mortifying and penitential character ought to be imparted to my diet - besides giving me as much crumb as possible in combination with as little butter, and putting such a quantity of warm water into my milk that it would have been more candid to have left the milk out altogether – my uncle Pumblechook’s conversation consisted of nothing but arithmetic. On my politely bidding him Good morning, he said, pompously, "Seven times nine, boy?" And how should I be able to answer, dodged in that way, in a strange place, on an empty stomach! I was hungry, but before I had swallowed a morsel, he began a running sum that lasted all through the breakfast. "Seven?" "And four?" "And eight?" "And six?" "And two? "And ten?" And so on. And after each figure was disposed of, it was as much as I could do to get a bite or a sup, before the next came; while he sat at his ease guessing nothing, and eating bacon and hot roll, in (if I may be allowed the expression) a gorging and gormandising manner.

For such reasons I was very glad when ten o'clock came and we started for Miss Havisham's; though I was not at all at my ease regarding the manner in which I should acquit myself under that lady's roof. Within a quarter of an hour we came to Miss Havisham's house, which was of old brick, and dismal, and had a great many iron bars to it. Some of the windows had been walled up; of those that remained, all the lower were rustily barred. There was a court-yard in front, and that was barred; so, we had to wait, after ringing the bell, until some one should come to open it. While we waited at the gate, I peeped in (even then Mr. Pumblechook said "And fourteen?" but I pretended not to hear him)…

(from Chapter 8 Great Expectations, Charles Dickens)


Part Two >




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