Editorial - Say hello to 2011, where it's Bac to the future and a zooby new world of phonics phanaticism

7th January 2011 at 00:00

Welcome to the year of ploob, of dar veng spunch and grint yurk pronk. Those words might faze adults, but by this spring they should be familiar to a few thousand six year-olds in England and around 200 tired- looking primary teachers.

They are not part of a last-ditch attempt to get Esperanto into schools. Nor are they an alien language concocted as a publicity stunt so children can communicate with the one-eyed mascots at next year's Olympics. The words are nonsense. But they are from a list of phonetically approved nonsense, so naturally the education ministers think they are great. The new reading tests for six-year-olds will feature zoob, gax and others to ensure children can decode even made-up words.

Nonsense words are, in themselves, frabjuous things. Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll were masters of them, as was Dr Seuss. The problem is not the words, but the tests that six-year-olds at selected schools will be piloting this June. The Government is used to fighting those who suggest it has overdone the phonics phanaticism by accusing them of being members of a reactionary blob who conspire in darkened halls to defend whole-word teaching. But the academic who describes the tests in today's issue as "horrendous", "a vast waste of money" and likely to warp the curriculum is a longstanding advocate of synthetic phonics. He cannot be dismissed so easily (page 8).

The reading tests are just one of the education developments in 2011 with the potential to skew what is taught - and that is before we even get to the curriculum reviews.

This month secondary schools will be judged on how many of their students would have got the English Baccalaureate last year. The Bac did not exist when those pupils sat their GCSEs. It may not be issued as a certificate for years. A grade C in Latin or geography will count, while A*s in engineering, music, religious education or ICT will be worthless. Headteachers are concerned that, instead of widening pupils' subject opportunities, it will narrow them (page 31). How downgrading many of those subjects will help create a high-tech, knowledge economy is a mystery, though on the bright side we will have lots of young people who can draw maps of Roman towns.

The fundamental motives behind the phonics tests and the Bac are laudable. Every effort should be made to ensure no six-year-old falls behind in reading, and no teenager misses out on studying for a set of high-quality qualifications. But knocking schools for missing a target set retrospectively, or for their work with children in a single year, will feel to many teachers like a ploy to trip them up in public. We trust that this is not the real motive. If it were, the reforms' authors would be a total bunch of spunching pronks.

Gerard Kelly is away.

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