Phonics' first lady sheds ex-factor

29th July 2005 at 01:00
Ruth Miskin steps out of Chris Woodhead's shadow to win over critics of her reading strategy. Hilary Wilce reports.

Ruth Miskin's star is rising. At last the climate is swinging behind her approach to reading.

She is featured in a Newsnight series where children in a failing primary school are introduced to her phonics-based package. No doubt in the hope that they will replicate the successes of the children in Clackmannanshire, whose research results caused so much excitement when published earlier this year.

But it has been a long time coming. Over the past decade she has regularly appeared in the media, partly as the phonics superhead who rejected the national literacy hour in order to teach her Tower Hamlets pupils to read in a way that had them whizzing through targets; partly as the longstanding - now ex - partner of Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools. She featured in an Ofsted video, gave evidence to the Commons education committee, and went head-to-head with the "real books" lobby.

Nigel de Gruchy, the NASUWT's former general secretary, once called her and Professor Woodhead "the first family of education".

But none of this endeared her to her profession. "Enthusiasts get a bad name. They like to make me out to be grill and kill with phonics!" she says with a grin.

However, this vivacious 49-year-old seems more than capable of fighting her corner - and of winning over critics.

The daughter of teachers, she rebelled at grammar school and dropped out at 16 for several lost years, which she prefers not to talk about. Her father got her back on track and, once teaching, "I was the most precocious NQT ever. I wanted to be a head by 30".

Her teaching career took her to Telford, Leicester, Dorset, Plymouth, Leeds and London, and she was a head by her early thirties. But all the time she was thinking about reading, logging what works.

When she arrived in London, at a school full of Bengali pupils - "never having taught an English-as-a-second-language child in my life" - she knew it was vital they learned to read English fast.

"I visited schools, I talked to people at the Institute of Education. I thought there would be a guru," she said. There wasn't. Left to solve her own problems, she zeroed in on synthetic phonics.

She is not a touchy-feely type, hates wasted teaching time, and is impatient with what she sees as the fudge of the national literacy strategy. Although she advised on it, she refused to use the final package, prompting its then director, John Stannard, to say testily he would be watching to see if her ideas were really better. She is convinced they were. At her primary school, Kobi Nazrul, "not one child in seven years failed to learn to read if they had gone through our programme".

Her method, which she has detailed in The TES, involves teaching letter sounds in a highly-structured way and introducing them early. It is fun, she says, and works even for "the three in every class" who usually trail and fail.

Critics say it is inflexible. "Children need to learn phonics, but they also need to learn other lessons about reading," says Henrietta Dombey, professor of literature in primary education at Brighton university.

But Ruth Miskin is fired with such conviction that she cannot stop herself grabbing a table napkin and drawing dinosaurs and snakes to show how easy it is to get children to recognise letters. "When I tell people outside education what I do they look at me as if I'm mad. To them it's completely obvious," she says.

However, phonics is only part of it. She left Kobi Nazrul to promote Success for All, an American programme designed by Bob Slavin and Nancy Madden. This was hairy at first, but better now.

Read Write Inc, her company, is based on phonics and a co-operative learning environment in which children work in pairs to answer questions.

Initially she felt terrible when schools tried her ideas out half-heartedly and made no headway. Now, as successes pile up, she feels on firmer ground.

Val Arbon, head of Ad Astra first school, in Poole, says the scheme has completely transformed reading - and writing and spelling - in her school.

So how did someone who is so clearly her own person feel about years of being labelled "the chief inspector's partner"? She bulges her eyes silently and eloquently. And, if he learned about phonics from her, did she learn anything from him? "Oh," she says, "that all those people in the Department for Education and Skills and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, they aren't anything special. They're just like you and me."

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