Writing wrongs

A nursery teacher reads between the lines of the UK government's confused National Literacy Strategy.

Julian Grenier

Topics Politics

The crisis in schools continues. Earlier in January 2003 the government conceded that it has missed its national test targets for 11 year-year-olds. ‘More than 200,000 seven-year-olds are not learning to read properly’, worried the Daily Telegraph in December 2002 (1).

The national school inspector, Ofsted, has published a searching report about the government’s National Literacy Strategy (2). Standards in reading and writing have not improved for two years, and it is likely that the 2003 targets will be missed, too. It probably won’t be long before someone claims that youngsters are picking up guns because they can’t pick up books. What’s going wrong in our schools?

But in truth, all this says more about the activities of the government than the reading abilities of seven- and 11-year-olds.

In 1997, then education secretary David Blunkett set arbitrary targets for improvements in children’s literacy, and promised to resign if the targets were missed. Fortunately for him, if not the rest of us, he moved on to the Home Office before he got to his self-imposed deadline. His successor, Estelle Morris, conveniently forgot that she had set herself the very same target. By the time the evidence was found, inconveniently for her, in Hansard, she was in the middle of the A-levels crisis (3). So she resigned anyway.

And when Tony Blair made his triple commitment to education, also in 1997, the government implemented a National Literacy Strategy (NLS) for primary schools. Folders, CD-ROMs, videos, booklets and online advice were pumped out by the Department for Education – not long after a moratorium on curriculum change had been agreed, following Sir Ron Dearing’s review of the disastrous implementation of the National Curriculum in England and Wales.

The NLS was declared to be guidance, with no force in law. Schools would remain free to decide how they taught reading and writing. But this turned out to be a theoretical type of freedom: it soon became clear that schools not following the NLS would fail their Ofsted inspections. The NLS prescribed, almost minute by minute, how teachers should teach reading and writing – a level of central control that has no precedent in England’s schools over the past 50 years.

Documents from the NLS are classic New Labour ideology. Promoting a dull and mechanistic notion of what reading is all about, they carefully skirt around controversies and appeal to everyone. There was no new research, no clear statement of principle, no theory of how children learn and teachers teach. Instead, there was ‘a detailed scrutiny of research and its implications for classroom teaching’ (4).

This mish-mash approach must have looked superficially safe. It did not involve the government making a clear commitment to any one set of principles about teaching: such a commitment would have been vulnerable to research and challenge.

The government has always been keener on diversity than principle, in education as in other areas of public policy. So the NLS took elements from all the competing theories about how children learn to read and write. This kept all the different factions more or less on board. A little industry was created for people called ‘literacy consultants’, for trainers and for software developers. They all had a stake in keeping the NLS show on the road.

But this diversity also led to ludicrous practices going on in English schools. Children are bombarded by different approaches to reading and writing. Five different teaching methods are prescribed at what NLS calls the ‘word-level’: teachers have 15 minutes a day to cover every one of these five approaches. One moment five-year-olds are being tested on the lists of words they have to learn at home – the so-called ‘look and say’ approach. Moments later, they are being drilled on their phonemes – the 44 individual letter sounds and combinations in English (like ‘c’ and ‘sh’) and taught to blend together sequences of letters like ‘ah’, ‘nn’, ‘duh’ to make ‘and’.

It is easy to see how Ofsted came to the conclusion that there was often much activity, but not much learning, under the NLS. Discontents have arisen among the different factions. There is too much emphasis on phonics for the supporters of the ‘whole language’ approach; but for the ‘phonics first and fast’ faction, there isn’t enough time being spent on phonics (and anyway they are being taught in the wrong way). Nobody is happy.

But, protected by the NLS’s vagueness, confusion and complexity – sorry, diversity – the government is let off the hook in the public debate. There is no ideology, no theory, no clarity – only discussion about models of delivery. So David Bell, the Chief Inspector of Schools, focused on ‘a stubborn core of weak leadership and management’ in schools as one of the main reasons for the government missing its targets on reading and writing (5).

Stephen Twigg, the new minister for primary schools, wrote to all headteachers and chairs of governors to tell them to do more to raise standards (6). Unions will continue to complain that unacceptable stress is being placed on headteachers and teachers (7). No good can come from this fruitless approach to discussing public policy.

If only teachers had taken a good look at the NLS five years ago and then told the government that they already knew about teaching, and would make their own judgements about the advice being offered. But they did not. Complaining, stressed-out and demoralised, they nevertheless implemented it, minute by minute, in practically every classroom in the country. The NLS overcame all resistance. This was not simply because it had the authority of the government and its school inspectors behind it; it was because many teachers had nothing to propose in place of the Literacy Hour, and no telling arguments to deploy against it.

When I started my first job in an inner London school in 1989, a large number of children were reaching the end of their primary schooling without even achieving the most basic levels of reading and writing. I still remember an Australian supply teacher coming into the staffroom halfway through her first day with a class of 10- and 11-year-olds and complaining that ‘none of the children can read’. This news about the emperor’s clothes was greeted in the staffroom with various responses, but without concern. Nobody – myself included – had the decency to recognise the truth or the importance of what she said.

So the supply teacher was told that learning to read is complicated, and that the approach taken by the school might not achieve any quick results, but it would inspire a lifelong love of reading and books. (This must have been an inspiration that would transcend the minor problem of not actually knowing much about letters, writing or spelling.)

Around the same time, the BBC screened a documentary about Culloden Primary School in Tower Hamlets. A parent, raising the very same issue – that her child did not seem to be able to read or write – was shown being subjected to a patronising account of all the many and more valuable things that her child was learning instead.

Some teachers, teachers like me, seemed to believe that children should at all costs be protected from difficult tasks and any risks of failure. We had no clear approach to teaching children the alphabet, or how to write their letters. We thought that teaching correct spelling would stifle children’s creativity and experimentation.

I remember the conference address at London’s Institute of Education by the Canadian psychologist Frank Smith. In front of a packed house, he claimed that children would learn to read by ‘joining the literacy club’. There seemed to be no place for teaching anymore – it was all about enabling learning, creating the right climate, displaying lovely books on ethnic fabrics.

By the time the NLS arrived, there were no established, proven, rigorous models for teaching children to read and write in many primary schools. Although the sheer size and level of prescription of the NLS was resented, many teachers came to welcome an approach that at least had something to say – however muddled – about how they might go about teaching their children.

The sad consequence of this is that teachers have now lost most of their autonomy and space for professional judgement. Most likely, they will be just be carried along by whatever the Department for Education and Skills prescribes next. Where there is a reaction to central control, it will take the form of teachers feeling overwhelmed and burnt-out. They will leave their schools sadly, quietly, without much of a fight.

As usual, if you want to see where England will go next, look to America. Faced by alarming statistics about the extent of illiteracy in New York schools, the federal government awarded $82million to the city’s schools. The money was not simply given to the schools on the basis of need. Instead, each school had to put in a bid for its share.

Teachers set about writing action plans and strategy documents in the usual manner. Except at the end of the process, the schools were all ordered to scrap their plans and base their proposals around a set of materials available online from a private company called Voyager. Based in Texas, Voyager is a successful and profitable company which has close links with President George W Bush (8). Its programmes – actually little more than dressed-up versions of traditional phonics teaching – promise miraculous results.

There is considerable research to show that phonics drilling alone has no impact on children’s ability to read, though it does improve their ability to pass tests in phonic knowledge (9) – the very tests that are the key indicators of progress for Voyager.

Meanwhile, in New Zealand – the most literate country in the world – the government supports a major new research programme called ‘Picking up the Pace’ (10), which actually involves teachers rather than merely telling them what to do. The project encourages teachers to act confidently and autonomously on the basis of their knowledge of the children in their classes. The results are extremely encouraging: children’s reading and writing has improved steadily in the small number of schools where there are problems stretching back decades.

This research is unacknowledged by the UK government’s Department for Education and Skills. But the publishers are positioning themselves to cash in on each new government strategy (11). As we follow the American lead, we can look forward to more panics about the illiteracy of our children.

Julian Grenier is the headteacher of a Nursery Centre in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Education

(1) 200,000 pupils cannot read at seven, Daily Telegraph, 27 November 2002

(2) National Literacy Strategy: the first four years 1998-2002, 26 November 2002 Ofsted

(3) Morris toughs out resignation calls, BBC News, 22 October 2002

(4) The National Literacy strategy: Phonics, DfES

(5) Pupils still struggle with reading, BBC News, 26 November 2002

(6) Schools lectured on standards, BBC News, 10 January 2003

(7) Appeal for fewer tests and targets in schools, BBC News, 8 June 1999

(8) Phonics Pitch Irks Teachers, on the National Right to Read Education website

(9) See the Picking up the Pace website

(10) See the Picking up the Pace website

(11) For example, see Granada Learning press releases

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today