Prescribing synthetic phonics jeopardises the professionalism of all teachers, says Colin Richards
It's very difficult to define the nature of a profession. But whatever else a profession is, it surely ought to involve the exercise of principled judgement with degrees of autonomy for that judgement to be exercised.
Presumably the General Teaching Council should be the guardian of that professionalism; presumably too the professional associations should act to preserve or maintain it. Yet the GTC and the professional associations have failed to confront the most significant threat to teacher professionalism for a century or more.
What is that threat? To understand, it is necessary to revisit educational history for one of the teaching profession's "defining moments" from 101 years ago.
In 1905 the Board of Education declared in its handbook, Suggestions for the Consideration of Teachers, that: "...each teacher shall think for himself, and work out for himself such methods of teaching as may use his powers to the best advantage and be best suited to the particular needs and conditions of the school. Uniformity in details of practice (except in the mere routine of school management) is not desirable, even if it were attainable. But freedom implies a corresponding responsibility in its use."
It continued: "Teachers who use this book should treat it as an aid to reviewing their aims and practice, and as a challenge to independent thought on such matters. Substantial agreement, or dissent on definite or reasoned grounds, fortified by experience, will be results equally welcome to the Board."
To my mind this is the best single statement of the nature of teacher autonomy. It is that long-established autonomy over teaching methodology (albeit with "corresponding responsibility in its use") which is now at grave risk.
A second defining "moment" has occurred recently with the announcement that primary schools must teach children to read using synthetic phonics from September and with schools minister Lord Adonis's support for "being prescriptive about what is right" (TES, March 24).
If this were to happen it would destroy the last vestige of the teacher autonomy so eloquently expressed in the 1905 publication. It would also be unlawful, unless the Government is prepared to undertake the hazardous and highly contentious attempt to repeal a key part of the 1988 Education Act which expressly prohibits ministers from prescribing teaching methodology.
That clause was an essential part of the settlement between government and teachers which made that act possible and was seen at the time as an essential safeguard of at least a measure of professional autonomy.
It may be that, as former chief inspector Norman Thomas predicts, the Government will seek to make the teaching of synthetic phonics virtually obligatory through "back-door" methods such as specifying in detailed national curriculum orders what symbols and sounds should be taught to whom and when or by making synthetic phonics so heavily "recommended" and "policed" by Ofsted as to make the approach compulsory de facto, if not de jure.
If that happens the teaching profession would lose its "independent thought" on such matters. Unlike its predecessor a century ago, it is most unlikely that the Department for Education and Skills would brook teachers'
"dissent on definite and reasoned grounds" even when "fortified by experience". But somewhere, somehow, on this slippery slope towards the loss of any genuine autonomy a stand has to be taken.
Arguably, it ought to have been taken earlier - in 1988 in relation to the Education Reform Act or, later, when the national primary and secondary strategies were introduced with their prescribed quasi-mandatory provisions. It certainly needs to be taken now.
Why aren't the GTC, the professional associations (both primary and secondary), the chief inspector, members of Jim Rose's review team, which recommended the early use of synthetic phonics, and local authority leaders contesting this usurpation of teacher professionalism? Has that usurpation taken place so insidiously that the fateful crossing of a line has not been appreciated, or have so many agents and agencies been subtly co-opted and compromised in recent years?
The issue is not just related to the teaching of initial reading, important though that is, but goes to the heart of teacher professionalism. It is an issue on which all the professional associations and all primary and secondary teachers should unite, including, paradoxically, those who support the teaching of synthetic phonics.
Professor Colin Richards is a former HMI. He would welcome comments on his views at email@example.com Or send your views to: firstname.lastname@example.org