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Edict on phonics under attack

A leading literacy expert has warned that Jack McConnell's endorsement of the synthetic phonics scheme in Clackmannanshire is effectively allowing national educational policy to be dictated by soundbites.

Sue Ellis, senior lecturer in Strathclyde University's primary education department, who has studied the Clackmannanshire initiative in depth, warned: "Every parent in Scotland should be concerned that one study which has had no external evaluation now appears to be dictating educational policy."

The First Minister last week become the most recent evangelist for synthetic phonics, calling for news of its success to be spread across Scotland. Mr McConnell used the occasion of a visit to Abercromby primary in Tullibody - one of eight pilot schools in the early literacy project - to announce the appointment of a development officer attached to Learning and Teaching Scotland whose job would be to share good practice on synthetic phonics with the rest of the country.

However, Ms Ellis said: "As an academic, I am irritated that complex research is being converted into soundbites. As a parent, I am seriously concerned that these soundbites now seem to be forming educational policy."

The Association of Head Teachers in Scotland stopped short of a wholesale endorsement of the scheme, stating that it was "not the be-all and end-all" and did not suit all learning styles and all stages of development.

While not actually directing authorities to adopt this particular reading scheme, Mr McConnell's tribute to a "great example of innovation in public services" will nevertheless be seen as a clear lead by the Scottish Executive.

A spokesman for the First Minister said: "Where things are successful, they need to be shown to the rest of Scotland and used if appropriate. This scheme is not going to be right for every school and every child but, where it is useful, schools should think about adopting it."

Earlier research studies tracking the progress of the first primary 1 class of pupils using synthetic phonics were circulated to all education authorities by Peter Peacock, Education Minister.

The most recent research by Joyce Watson from St Andrews University and Rhona Johnston from Hull University, who ran the programme from 1997, showed that pupils were on average three and a half years ahead of their chronological age in word reading, one and three quarter years ahead in spelling and three and a half months ahead in reading comprehension by the time they reached P7.

The results were seen as particularly significant in that many of the pupils involved came from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and because boys' results in word reading outstripped those of girls.

However, Ms Ellis said: "There is an issue about reading engagement: although the Clackmannanshire children could read individual words, they were no more likely to be picking up a book and reading it - and boys were far less likely to read books than girls."

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