Evolution, not revolution

26th September 2008 at 01:00

Scotland has avoided the "radical policy and curriculum overhauls" seen south of the border, exemplified by England's wholesale adoption of the Clackmannanshire synthetic phonics scheme, according to one literacy expert.

Sue Ellis, a lecturer at Strathclyde University's education faculty, argues that the Scottish practice of "evolution rather than revolution" in curriculum development has not only benefited teachers but also politicians, who reap rewards because it means that "nothing seemed to stick" to them.

She told delegates at the recent British Educational Research Association conference in Edinburgh: "In England, as soon as the exam results come out, Adonis (Schools Minister Lord Adonis) is on the radio talking about them. In Scotland, we have a Teflon First Minister who says it's down to local authorities and `not our problem'."

Scotland placed the curriculum beyond the reach of politicians, who could be targeted by pressure groups, she said. While politicians might have an "excellent understanding of how to deliver soundbites and capture media attention", they had less knowledge about teaching or interpreting statistical evidence.

Scotland had a "more measured and nuanced professional debate", she argued, as she presented her article, Policy and research: Lessons from the Clackmannanshire Synthetic Phonics Initiative.

The different responses in Scotland and England to the synthetic phonics experiment in Clackmannanshire exemplified the two countries' divergent approaches to curriculum development, she claimed.

After seven years of following the programme in Clackmannanshire, pupils were three years and six months ahead of their chronological age in decoding words, one year and nine months ahead in spelling, and 3.5 months above the expected level for reading comprehension, researchers from St Andrews University found.

In England, the results of the study sparked an immediate review of the National Literacy Strategy. The outcome of that review, the Rose Report, "placed considerable weight on the findings of a seven-year longitudinal study in Clackmannanshire" and concluded: "All children in England should be taught to read using systematic synthetic phonics as the prime approach in learning to read."

In contrast, an HMIE report in Scotland said: "While this programme had made a strong impact on pupils' ability to sound out, spell and recognise words, further work was required to link these skills to other aspects of reading."

The technique had improved children's ability to decode long, complicated words, Mrs Ellis explained, but not necessarily their ability to read and understand. "Scotland locates curriculum decisions closer to the people that deliver them and that sharpens up thinking enormously," she concluded.

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