Ministers don't want to hear a peep out of Songbirds

2nd December 2011 at 00:00
Gruffalo author's series falls foul of their approved phonics list

She's one of the world's best-loved authors and is an unashamed fan of the phonics teaching method, but still there was no room for reading books by the children's laureate in a new Government-funded catalogue of phonics resources.

Julia Donaldson's Songbirds series - a scheme of books designed to help children learn to read - is not included in the catalogue due to what her publisher, Oxford University Press (OUP), describes as a technicality.

As in Mrs Donaldson's popular story Room on the Broom, in which a careless witch receives help from various quarters but ends up plunging to the ground after offering all her saviours a lift, ministers are concerned that using too many reading methods can snap the broom in two.

As such, the Government is famously keen to promote synthetic phonics alone in primaries and has launched a scheme to offer matched funding of up to #163;3,000 to schools which order resources through its catalogue of approved synthetic phonics products and training.

This is where the Gruffalo author fell foul of officialdom. The teaching notes that accompanied Songbirds refer to "searchlights", the term used in Labour's national literacy strategy, which promoted the use of more than one method to help children learn to read. Currently, ministers are committed to using phonics alone.

Responding to news that this was the reason for her rejection, Mrs Donaldson (pictured, right) said Songbirds was one of her "proudest achievements". She said that while she was disappointed, she was unrepentant about giving credence to other teaching systems. "Although I am a phonics fanatic, I also realise that some children learn better by the 'look and say' method and others seem to learn by osmosis, so I favour a mixed approach.

"Children have such different tastes in stories, so I was determined that the content and illustrations of my own scheme should be as varied as possible. One of my own children learnt to read using a dreary and repetitive scheme in which all the stories were set in the inner city and featured lorries and policemen. So some of the Songbirds are in prose, some in rhyme, some are realistic and others are fantastical."

The issue goes to the heart of the debate about whether politicians should dictate to teachers how they teach. "My simple message to Government would be to put some trust in us," said Steve Iredale, head of Athersley South Primary in Barnsley and vice-president of heads' union the NAHT. "I ask my staff to look for the best resources for us and if it is on the approved list that is fine, but if it's not then we would still get it. But it is highly frustrating in these days of financial challenge."

Jane Harley, head of primary publishing at OUP and chair of the primary literacy group on the Educational Publishers Council, said there was demand from schools for the Songbirds books to be available on the matched funding scheme and she hoped that this may yet happen.

"We have removed that reference and resubmitted (the teaching notes)," she said. "The books are highly phonic in their approach and we've had a lot of people wondering why they are not there. The books are fantastic and have all the enjoyment and motivating elements of powerful storytelling. I understand teachers want to use their match funding to buy them. I would say we failed to get them in on a technicality."

While the Department for Education refused to comment on individual "products" that failed to be approved, there can be little disguising the fact that publicly rejecting the author of The Gruffalo is controversial, to say the least.


Julia Donaldson was made children's laureate in June 2011 and the appointment runs for two years.

Her first book, A Squash and a Squeeze, was published in 1993 and she has written about 160 books. Her most famous creation is The Gruffalo, which has sold over five million copies, been adapted for the stage and made into a film.

She has spoken out in support of libraries, saying cuts and closures are damaging to children.

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