Published in: Daily Mail
The government is in a frightful panic over the fact that, like an alchemist having a bad hair day, the public services are crumbling into dust in its hands. The more spells it conjures up to put them right, the worse they all get.
The most spectacular and fundamental failure of all is the attempt to teach every child to read, write and be numerate.
According to the schools inspectors Ofsted, a quarter of all 11 year-olds are still failing to reach the required standard of reading and writing. Their reading standards have in fact fallen by three percentage points over the past two years.
Our numeracy record offers further cause for despair. A report by Unicef says that almost half of all British teenagers are unable to do basic subtraction, putting the UK behind countries such as Hungary or Korea. Ofsted says numeracy is slowly improving, but there are still weaknesses in maths teaching.
Yet we've had three to four years of high profile strategies which the government developed in order to improve literacy and numeracy. How can the world's fourth largest economy still be so startlingly backward in the very basics?
Ofsted blames the literacy failure on weak leadership and poor management by head teachers, who fail to ensure their staff get to grips with traditional teaching methods. But this is only partly true.
The real problem lies in the literacy strategy itself. In fairness, it has brought about some improvement by putting teaching back at centre stage and giving primary teachers a welcome shot in the arm.
But it is still fundamentally flawed. That is because Tony Blair has never understood that the very bloodstream of education has been poisoned by a pernicious ideology. As a result, even the people he entrusted to get literacy right hijacked the policy to perpetuate the very thinking it was set up to counter.
Anyone who was taught to read by what's called 'synthetic phonics' -- sounding out letters and then blending those sounds together -- will no doubt find it hard to believe that this tried and tested method fell from favour in the teaching profession.
Instead, teachers expected children to learn to read by a kind of osmosis. Rather than systematically decoding print through phonics, teachers used a mixture of methods, including guesswork and memorising whole words and phrases. The result was that many children became disastrously confused and demoralised.
True, the literacy strategy put phonics back on the agenda. But the then Education Secretary David Blunkett flinched from taking on the education establishment. He merely threw in a bit of phonics along with those other methods that had done so much damage.
So the literacy strategy is still failing to teach children to blend letter sounds together. Instead, it gets them to memorise words or guess them from the context, the initial letter or the pictures on the page.
The result of this mess is that, despite literacy hours involving vast amounts of teaching materials, videos, one-to-one help, special teacher training, input from educational psychologists and an avalanche of bureaucratic directives, many children are still unable to decode the simplest of words.
Yet there is no reason why virtually every child can't be taught fast to read and write. In the current newsletter of the Reading Reform Foundation - which has ceaselessly and fruitlessly pointed out to the government the flaws in its strategy -- teacher Fiona Nevola relates how she has used synthetic phonics to teach many children to read after they were written off by their schools.
One boy of seven was classified dyslexic, and spent his time with his learning support assistant making Plasticine dinosaurs. But after 12 lessons over 5 months, Ms Nevola transformed his reading age from 5.5 to 9.2.
Another boy, William aged 9, who had been withdrawn from mainstream school to a dyslexic unit where he made no progress, moved from a reading age of 7.8 to 9.2 in eight weeks. 'Why haven't I been taught like that before?' he asked angrily.
Why indeed? We should all [ital] be incandescent. Thousands of children are being written off - leading to truancy, emotional problems and crime -- when the problem is not they who are unteachable but their teachers who have failed to teach them to read.
The reason lies in continued resistance by leaders of their profession. Ofsted reports that Cambridge's prestigious teacher training college, for example, makes hardly any reference to phonics on its course for primary school teachers. So these new teachers know all about the National Literacy Strategy, but next to nothing about teaching children to read. It makes you want to weep.
The reason goes to the very heart of what has gone wrong with education in general. The animosity against phonics derives from 'child-centred' education, which regards pupils as the equals of their teachers. The result is that children are expected to run before they can walk.
So in maths, they may grapple with 'set theory' without ever being taught how to subtract. In history, they may be analysing historical sources without ever being taught what actually happened in the past.
And in the literacy hour, Ofsted tells us, teachers are particularly successful at 'introducing children to a range of genres', and in discussing antonyms and word roots. But what on earth is the point of children being knowledgeable about literary genres or linguistic structure when they can't even read or write?
This madness is all rooted in a political ideology which viewed child-centred education as nothing less than a programme to undermine western society. Since mass literacy had not brought about the workers' revolution, it had to be destroyed. The 'new literacy', as it was called, would apparently free the masses by replacing reading skills with 'spontaneity' and redefining educational failure as success.
Most teachers wouldn't even know about this preposterous ideology, let alone subscribe to it. But incredible as it may seem, it lies at the root of the ideas with which they have been trained, and which have sent them so grievously ill-equipped into the classroom.
Mr Blair thinks he can reform education from Whitehall. This is a terrible mistake. It does not acknowledge the universal scale and gravity of our educational implosion.
Literacy and numeracy standards are not some discrete, localised problem that can be solved by artificially redirecting lesson structure.
Instead of imposing a literacy strategy created by an education establishment that has become irredeemably corrupted, Mr Blair should be should be going to the heart of the problem by shutting down the teacher training colleges that are doing all the damage.
Education decline is a deformation at the very heart of our culture. As such, it is very hard to address. But it is vital to understand that it is being driven by