Teaching children to read is a magical thing. You are not only unleashing a lifetime’s pleasure but providing the very foundation for how to negotiate the world.
However, for something so beautiful, the battles fought around it can be ugly and its protagonists zealous and fierce.
And no one is more dedicated, determined and more indefatigable than schools standards minister Nick Gibb. He has battled long and hard for his favoured method, both in government and in opposition.
In what should now be probably viewed as a masterpiece of understatement, Ed Balls, then secretary of state for education, said of him in 2008: “I know that no one is more keen on taking forward the issue of phonics and synthetic phonics in our curriculum than the hon gentleman.”
Nearly 10 years on, Balls is dancing Gangnam Style but Gibb has not changed his tune. At all. In fact, Gibbnam Style is, if anything, louder and more confident. “Keen” does not do him justice. He’s not just eager or enthusiastic: he is a man on a mission.
This week, his commitment to the cause appeared to pay off. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) showed a significant rise in reading standards for 10-year-olds in England, from an average score of 552 in 2011 to 559.
This takes England to 10th (it was 11th in 2011) out of 50 countries, or 8th, depending on how you calculate it (and it is left to governments and journalists to do this, as Pirls does not assign rank).
Whichever way you do, Gibb was notching it up as a big victory, especially as these were the first children to take the phonics check when it was introduced in 2012. It was, he said, “a vindication of the government’s boldness in pursuing the evidence in the face of ideological criticism” (bit.ly/GibbPirls).
War on 'romanticism'
Here is our hero emerging triumphant from his war on the “dogmatic romanticism that prevented the spread of evidence-based teaching practices”.
Once upon a time, teachers were getting it all wrong. In his tale – and it’s a good one – coming into government in 2010, he knew that something had gone awry with the way reading was being taught at primary, specifically with the “look and say” method “ubiquitous in teacher training colleges”.
In a lovely flourish, he says, “I vividly recall visiting classrooms around the country where pupils were being failed; too many were unable to read. Effectively locked out of achieving their potential.”
But it is just a story. Change was already the air back in 2006 when Sir Jim Rose was asked to do an independent review of reading, which replaced the searchlights method (the mixing and matching) with the “simple view of reading” – that is, comprehension and phonics. His report made clear that “high-quality phonic work” should be taught systematically and discretely as the prime approach.
And if we’re talking evidence, the idea that “look and say” was widespread in schools before 2010 is a little fanciful: most teachers supported phonics well before the check.
We know that politicians have to make out something is broken in order to later say they have fixed it – that’s all part of the story. But whatever you say about Gibb and the methods he champions, his commitment to phonics and literacy is extraordinary.
In a week when we have been told that more than 750,000 UK schoolchildren do not own a single book (bit.ly/BooklessPupils), a politician who understands the importance and the beauty of reading is a rare beast.
Of course, when taught mechanistically, phonics can put at risk that love of reading – so we must guard against it.
And, yes, sometimes Gibb’s obsessions take him down rabbit holes – but, credit where it’s due, this time, the minister really has pulled the rabbit out of the hat.