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Good news on phonics

JohnbaldJohn Bald welcomes progress on phonics but calls on the criteria for Ofsted inspections to change

Two pieces of good news. First, the examinations regulator Ofqual, has agreed that A levels have been diluted beyond the bounds of credibility and need to be rebuilt. One of the key points is that the regime of endless modules and resits is robbing schools of teaching time, so that life for pupils becomes one long assessment. The same happens at GCSE, and is particularly damaging in languages, where pupils are assessed before they have time to practise and properly assimilate what they have learned. My proposal for both A level and GCSE is that no exams of any type should take place before the summer half term of the final year of school, so that young people are assessed on what they know at the end of their course, and not half way through it.

With this in mind, there is no reason whatever to keep New Labour's AS examination. It is a non-qualification, and makes life very difficult for sixth formers who take longer to make the transition from GCSE to A level thinking. I know a science student at a prestigious sixth form college who was retaking AS science modules in the January of her upper sixth year, with full A level modules following immediately.

This is an unhealthy regime, and  the student is now unlikely to go to university.  The civil service appears to be advising that AS should be retained. This reflects the government's problem that the department has been filled with New Labour supporters, who are still prevalent in its middle ranks and revert to the status quo whenever they can. AS has failed in its purpose of broadening the curriculum, and all it does now is make money for examining boards. It is, in short, a blight.

But back to the good news. The government and associated organisations known as Pro5 have produced an excellent catalogue of resources and training for phonics teaching that are eligible for matched funding. Order up to £6k of resources and training, and the government pays half.

Most schools will find something they haven't already thought of in this catalogue, and it is worth governors' time to read it and to make sure it is considered. My own favourite is Ruth Miskin's Read Write Inc, for its amusing "ditties" in the early stages, and excellent questions to ensure that children understand what they are reading. There is also very clear guidance to parents on how to discuss words and stories in every book a child takes home, so that the scheme promotes focused conversation as well as reading.

At the same time, the criteria for synthetic phonics teaching have been placed on the government website.

These include the point that:

Phonic work is best understood as a body of knowledge and skills about how the alphabet works, rather than one of a range of optional 'methods' or 'strategies' for teaching children how to read.

This is the key to the whole issue - alphabetic systems of writing are based on representing sounds by letters, and understanding this is the key to reading them. In English, though, this representation is not fully regular, as it is in languages such as Finnish and Italian, and the government guidelines still do not take account of this. Irregular features in English need to be explained to children and not simply learned parrot fashion. Otherwise, they are a major cause of reading failure. See my previous posting.

In the meantime, the Trotskyite element in the NUT and other opponents of phonics, including Michael Rosen when he is in Hard-Left rather than cuddly mode, use irregularity very effectively to attack phonics, and they are still getting away with it. Professor Andrew Lambirth, of Greenwich University, sums up the attack in the amusing phrase Conservative Neoliberal Phonics, arguing that phonics are designed to restrict and control children in the interests of the owners of the means of production.

Bunkum, of course, and leaving children at the mercy of guessing game theories of reading and guessing from pictures, as advocated by the NUT representative on Woman's Hour.

The reason, incidentally, why guessing from pictures doesn't help is that the picture in a children's book usually contains more information and detail than the text, so that the child doesn't know what part of the picture is supposed to be giving him or her a clue. Having the teacher point this out does not help the child when the teacher is not there. These arguments are there to be won, and the case for phonics will not be made until they are.

Finally, complaints from teachers about Ofsted inspectors' stupidity in applying their own criteria in grading lessons. These included criticising a teacher who was eight months pregnant for not moving about enough, a pe teacher for having children fielding in a cricket match, children criticised for being too well-behaved and polite,and a good lesson downgraded because the teacher "talked too much".  

Ofsted shrugged these off, but they are symptomatic of a real problem that grew up from New Labour's damaging changes to Ofsted in 2005, when a lot of inexperienced people were recruited as inspectors in order to do the government's bidding.

As a lead inspector, I recommended that inspectors grade the learning taking place in a lesson first, and then made sure their teaching grade reflected this - good learning did not happen on its own, and poor learning could be due to the teaching or, sometimes, to poor behaviour that was not the teacher's fault. For example, I once did not grade the teaching in a lesson because a pupil came in and hit the teacher on the head with a book, so that he did not even get a chance to start.

New Labour's Ofsted removed this option from inspectors, and ditched the excellent guidance on judging teaching introduced by Sir Michael Tomlinson. It would be no bad thing to bring this guidance back.


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