The national literacy debacle
Published in: Daily Mail
The answer is that although there has been an improvement in literacy rates, it is very small- and even that is contested. Wholly unacceptable numbers of children are still unable to read and write adequately.
Last year, only 56 per cent of 11 year-old boys and 71 per cent of girls in England reached the standard expected for their age in writing, while only 46 per cent of girls and 33 per cent of boys reached the highest standard of reading.
The fact is that the false assumptions embedded in our country's decades-long national reading disaster are still firmly entrenched - and the government remains as stubbornly resistant as ever to acknowledging this debacle.
When the scheme was launched, the then Education Secretary David Blunkett famously promised to resign unless 80 per cent of 11 year-olds met expected literacy standards. They didn't. The rate went up from 65 per cent to around 75 per cent, where it has remained stuck - with persistent claims of both cheating in school tests and lowering of standards casting doubt even on that level of progress.
The reasons for this were crystal clear from the start. Britain's modern literacy problem arose because - extraordinary as this may sound -the teaching establishment stopped training teachers in the tried and tested methods of teaching children to read.
For various reasons - one of which was excessive concern for the feelings of children who didn't learn to read as fast as others - teachers junked the structured system of phonics, the matching of letters to sounds, which is crucial in teaching children to read.
They used instead a variety of other methods, such as memorising or guessing at words. But all this produced was children who gave a convincing impression of being able to read but, when faced with unfamiliar words, could not do so.
Crucially, they had not been taught to decode the language, the skill which only a phonics-based approach provides. Yet they were falsely said to be reading, a cruel deception which left millions floundering.
Despite the catastrophic results of this approach, however, virtually the entire education establishment defended it with near-religious fanaticism. Professors of education queued up to claim that what was most important was that children understood the meaning of what they were reading.
But this was clearly to put the cart before the horse. Understanding the meaning of words which have been merely memorised or guessed at does not mean a child can read. Yet to these education ideologues, it was more important for a child to be able to say what was in a book than actually to be able to read it.
They also claimed that it was important to use a variety of methods in teaching children to read. But this was in itself disastrous, because when children are taught many approaches they merely become confused and the value of phonics is lost.
The way the education establishment closed ranks on this issue, and the depths of its ideological zealotry, cannot be over-estimated. As a result, the government's attempts to combat its harmful effects were doomed to failure.
A bitter and protracted battle ensued over the content of the National Literacy Strategy. The outcome was a fudge, in which while it paid lip-service to phonics it included other methods like word-recognition - the very approach that had caused so much damage in the past.
The result was that although a little progress was made at the start, it soon stalled. Yet the tragedy is that this is so unnecessary. For every single child in the country who does not suffer from some innate handicap can be taught to read by what is now called 'synthetic phonics'.
This involves blending letters and sounds and then steadily building up mastery of two-letter combinations, irregular words, prefixes and suffixes. It teaches children steadily and systematically to decode the language. And wherever it is used, it produces results.
A seven-year study of schools in Clackmannanshire has shown that pupils taught this way instead of by the official method were on average no less than three and a half years ahead for their age in reading and one year and eight months ahead in spelling by the age of 11.
What's more, boys outscored girls; and pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds did almost as well as those from more favoured homes.
We didn't need the Scottish survey to tell us this. The author of one of the synthetic phonics schemes, Ruth Miskin, was previously head of a primary school in east London where she used this approach. Virtually every pupil was from a Bangladeshi background and most did not speak English as their first language. But by age the age of six, every one of them was reading fluently.
In truth, synthetic phonics is hardly rocket science. It is, in fact, the way most of us were once taught to read.
Yet the establishment still bandies about the term 'phonics' to camouflage the abject and persistent failure in the classroom. On BBC Radio Four's Today programme yesterday, Professor Henrietta Dombey of Brighton university - a veteran defender of discredited education strategies - insisted that phonics had to be taught 'in the context of focusing on meaning, and this is not what's happening in Clackmannanshire'. Thus an approach more than three times as successful as the government's own scheme was airily dismissed.
In response, Schools Minister Stephen Twigg was wet beyond belief. Boasting once again of the success of the literacy strategy, he commended both Professor Dombey and Ruth Miskin - before uttering the giveaway phrase that synthetic phonics had to be combined with other strategies such as 'word recognition'. Yet this is the very same 'variety of approaches' policy which has so singularly failed.
The reason the literacy strategy went wrong from the start was that ministers chose to listen to the very people responsible for the disaster in the first place - the preposterous academics who had taught generations of teachers to teach un-reading in our primary schools.
The outcome remains nothing less than a national scandal. Because of the grip still maintained by this pernicious ideology upon our teacher training institutions, British children are less literate than many in the third world, let alone our major economic competitors.
Their resulting failure to cope at school is undoubtedly a major cause of the dismaying levels of ill-discipline and truancy at school, not to mention crime and other anti -social behaviour. At a deeper level still, if children are not able to read they are not able to think.
Behind the figure of more than a million illiterate children lies an untold story of human misery and criminally wasted potential. The government has been told on innumerable occasions of both the problem and the solution. How many more children will need to be sacrificed before it finally wakes up?