Adviser says his ideas have been 'perverted'

23rd November 2007 at 00:00
The conservative policy adviser who first suggested the plan to introduce reading tests for six-year-olds has attacked the party for "perverting" his proposal and talking "nonsense" about phonics.

As a member of the Conservative Public Services Improvement Policy Group, Professor Colin Richards submitted a paper in November 2006 advocating the replacement of the current key stage 1 assessments with new tests in the three Rs for six-year-olds.

The plan did not make it to the policy group's final report, published earlier this year. So the Cumbria University emeritus professor was surprised to see his idea resurface at the top of the Tories' new education policies this week.

And he was dismayed when he learned the detail of David Cameron's plans.

Professor Richards had proposed a one-to-one administered diagnostic reading test with results reported only to teachers and parents, on an individual pupil basis rather than school-by-school. But the Tories say the results of the test - "to ensure that children have mastered the skill of decoding words" - would be published nationally, school by school.

Professor Richards, a former Ofsted specialist primary adviser, said the plan would lead to "teaching to the test" in Year 1.

He is also heavily critical of the paper's portrayal of synthetic phonics as the sole solution to illiteracy.

"The Conservatives seem to be suffering from two misapprehensions," he said. "One that reading is a fairly simple process that most children can grasp by the age of six, which is nonsense. Secondly that a programme of synthetic phonics from four provides the magic to unlock the mysteries of reading to the vast majority of children.

"It undoubtedly has a part to play, but it can't do it on its own. You also need to test for children's understanding of context and the ability to recognise whole words that are not capable of being amalgamated phonically such as 'the'."

His comments follow criticisms from another expert member of the party's policy group, Professor Alan Dyson of Manchester University. Commenting on Conervative plans for evidence-based policy in place of an "education establishment" ideology, Professor Dyson told a fringe meeting at the party's conference in Blackpool in September that when politicians talked about "what works", they were usually being "highly ideological".

A Conservative spokesman said the party would not deny parents access to information about school performance on the reading test.

On phonics, he said: "The evidence is that the use of phonics raises standards for the most disadvantaged children.

"Schools must have the freedom to choose specific practices and those that improve outcomes should be applauded.

"But those schools that shun best practice and also fail to deliver high standards should lose their alibis for failure."

Enemies within, page 20.

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