Marks out of 10 - No place for facts in fiction

13th August 2010 at 01:00

So why can't they read?

Miriam Gross

Centre for Policy Studies

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A chapter in this highly publicised booklet on children's literacy is titled "Facts are fun". If only its author had taken that to heart rather than painting a weird picture of schools founded on anecdotes and myths.

Miriam Gross, a veteran journalist, singles out primary school teachers as being to blame for illiteracy. They are, she suggests, a bunch of Sixties-style progressives who refuse to correct their pupils' grammar, are happy to see essays written in street slang and are part of a conspiracy to stop children from learning the basics of reading. Above all, they hate facts and believe that "imparting knowledge is oppressive and that facts interfere with creativity".

Needless to say, no facts are provided to back up these wild accusations.

The report, published by the right-wing think-tank the Centre for Policy Studies, is riddled with contradictions. It admits that "synthetic phonics is not a miracle cure for reading difficulties", but ultimately leaves the reader with the impression that it is.

Teachers, Ms Gross suggests, are overwhelmed by government diktat and slavishly teach subjects such as PSHE, which promote personal and social skills. But these same teachers, who are "under continuous pressure to meet government targets", apparently think it is fine to ignore the much bigger part of the curriculum which focuses on preparing pupils to read and write, an area which is judged in the league tables. And when synthetic phonics became compulsory in 2007, these otherwise cowed teachers simply ignored it.

The reality is that synthetic phonics can be found in every primary school, and it is hard to find anyone who denies it has an important role in teaching children to read. But that is not enough for Ms Gross, who is appalled that some teachers and academics think that, once phonics has been exhausted, it might be worth trying other approaches, instead of piling on yet more phonics.

She ignores or dismisses anything that might undermine her argument, including the striking fact that key stage 1 reading results were no better two years after phonics became compulsory. Instead she highlights the known successes, mentioning trials such as the one in West Dunbartonshire, Scotland (without noting that the children there were regarded as literate if they gained the equivalent of level 3, not the level 4 which pupils in England need to satisfy Ms Gross, and others, that they can read or write properly).

Some of the pamphlet's proposals border on the bizarre, including that Ofsted should "give priority to academic attainment over and above environmental and social issues when assessing schools" - which will come as news to the many headteachers complaining that Ofsted cares too much about raw academic results.

The assertion that pupils only discover in secondary school that "street" English is unacceptable in written work may also surprise primary teachers who know that writing and talking to different audiences is a key part of the curriculum.

To its credit, the report does draw attention to the crucial issue of literacy, quotes several excellent teachers, and rightly questions assumptions about the skills of pupils from immigrant families.

But the positives are outweighed by the strange criticisms. Ms Gross, for example, is horrified to sit in on lessons in which teachers ask pupils questions, seeing this as emblematic of woolly, "child-led" education rather than, say, a technique pioneered by Socrates.

The scariest aspect of the pamphlet is that the introduction is written by London mayor Boris Johnson, proof that politicians actually believe this stuff.

The verdict 210.

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