Angels at each other's throats;Last word

16th April 1999 at 01:00
I HATE it when nice people fall out. Many of the finest and most committed professionals on this planet work in education. Given the huge variety of beliefs and practices, no one expects them all to live each day in perfect harmony. It is sad, though, when some of them quarrel.

Over the years I have reluctantly formulated a law about delightful people having a dust-up over a particular issue in education. My Law of Quarrels Between Educational Professionals states: "The saintliness of the protagonists is directly proportional to the amount and degree of invective generated". In other words: the nicer the people, the more they will kick the crap out of each other.

There are certain trigger words and phrases that seriously unbalance the biochemistry of the saintly. It is as if the moral cement which holds them together is eaten away by a kind of chemical corrosion.

I came across this remarkable phenomenon years ago at a special needs conference. The room was full of angelic people who worked with deaf children. The atmosphere was warm and moving, as these committed professionals described their work.

Then, suddenly, came the big bang. Boom! One member of this gentle gathering mentioned the use of sign language. Mayhem ensued when pro and anti-signing factions identified themselves. Moral cement dissolved as these saints turned beetroot red, sprouting hair all over their faces. Teeth grew long and pointed. Cherubims kneed seraphims in the groin and head-butted each other; archangels wrestled on the floor.

Another time, the word "dyslexia" was uttered among a group of educational psychologists, many working in desperately difficult inner-city areas. It lit the blue touchpaper for these dedicated professionals, some believing that dyslexia did not exist, others outraged at its gross neglect.

Boom! "You bastard!" screamed Florence Nightingale, hurling herself at the throat of Archangel Gabriel. St Francis of Assisi meanwhile was karate-chopping Mother Theresa, who in return was gouging his eyes. I hid under the chair to read my copy of Twenty Things You Never Knew About Dyslexia, quietly adding a 21st: "The mere mention of the word can seriously derange psychologists."

Now we have the same sad spectacle in the teaching of reading, as fans of different types of phonics fall on each other. Never assume there is simply something called "phonics" which offers children a structure for decoding words. Not on your life. Supporters of "synthetic phonics" are locked in mortal combat with advocates of "analytical phonics", each claiming to have found the philosopher's stone that turns everything to gold.

Mind you, I have never been fooled by the apparent innocence of the expression "teaching children to read".

This harmless-looking label has concealed seriously psychopathic behaviour for decades. Years ago I went to a research conference in the United States. Most of it was conducted in the suitably serious and reflective atmosphere you might expect - until the session on research into reading.

Boom! Briefcases opened and out came knuckledusters, while pump-action rifles appeared from nowhere. Rat-a-tat-tat! Gunfire strafed the debate, and terrified neutrals like me fled for cover as the third world war broke out.

Even worse was an innocuous-looking symposium entitled "Recent developments in assessment". A roomful of wimpish anoraks sat passive and attentive, until one speaker mentioned the Rasch model, a form of assessment which builds up a bank of test items representing various degrees of difficulty. Boom! Spotty Benedicts retired to telephone boxes to remove their glasses and don red and blue superhero outfits, as the anoraks turned into vicious pro and anti-Rasch commandos.

So if you want a bit of fun at a meeting or conference when the atmosphere becomes too pious, be "Rasch". Combine several "synthetic" trigger words and phrases. Stand up and announce, in sign language of course, that you teach dyslexics by using synthetic phonics (lob in the term "real books" for added explosive effect, never mind what it means), and that you use the Rasch model to assess results.

As the moral cement once more turns to dust, perhaps the fundamental daftness of these petty territorial conflicts will be exposed.

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