Friday, June 10, 2005

This year’s educational panacea

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News. Although it covers the teaching of reading I managed to avoid mentioning Ladybird Books, but it can only be a matter of time before Lassie appears.

Later note: As the blogosphere has higher ethical standards than print journalism, I should thank Tim Hicks and Tim Worstall for postings that helped inspire this column.

Home Counties voice: Come on Tim!

Not so phonic

The Tories have decided what it is they object to most about Tony Blair’s government. There’s not enough micromanagement. The trouble with New Labour, they believe, is that it does not centralise things enough.

You don’t believe me? Look at the way they’ve taken up this year’s educational panacea: synthetic phonics. Here is Tim Collins (whatever happened to him?) during the election campaign: “We won’t waste time commissioning more reports and pilot projects – the evidence is there and we will act upon it.”

Now Nick Gibb is inveighing against “the education establishment, who have known about this research for some time, have not adapted the national literacy strategy to put synthetic phonics at its core."

Yes, something about phonics appeals to the Tory mind. The Daily Mail thinks “Phonics is taught through discipline and repetition.” Which fits with its belief that education is impossible without “discipline, authority, order, tradition, learning by heart, rigorous examinations, selection”. (If space had permitted it would undoubtedly have added cold showers and swishy canes to the list.)

Maybe synthetic phonics is a better way of teaching reading, even though many of those pushing it have a commercial interest in doing so. And it has its unattractive side. There are stories of children being denied books and its proponents are no keener on illustrations than your average Puritan clergymen was.

But if synthetic phonics is best, how have we found that out? Will someone help Collins please? Thank you, Widdecombe. It’s because of an experiment. And how will we make the next breakthrough in teaching reading if the government imposes synthetic phonics everywhere and allow no more experiments? No, Gibb, I don’t know either.

Excuse me for coming over all headmasterly. Think of it as a tribute to Phil Willis. During the election campaign he said: “We need to free teachers from endless central government diktats, testing and targets and allow them to practise the methods that are best for their pupils.”

He was right, but we need to go further. A maintained education sector with a wider variety of providers and more freedom to choose between them would not be kind to schools which didn’t teach children to read. And the best methods, be they synthetic phonics or anything else, would flourish.

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