Pundits crow over Kelly's 'U-turn'

9th December 2005 at 00:00
B-a-c-k spells back, as in "back to basics". Of course, in newspaper lexicons, it spells "U-turn".

Yes, it was a spelling lesson for the nation's newspaper readers, as the government accepted Jim Rose's recommendation that synthetic phonics should be the first strategy used for teaching reading.

The Daily Telegraph led the acclaim of the "return to traditional methods", reporting that all schools will now have to "tear up" past advice on literacy. Presumably just throwing it away would not be sufficient therapy for those who, as John Clare put it, had been forced into a "30-year orthodoxy" of non-phonic methods causing a steady decline in reading standards.

In the Daily Express, columnist Leo McKinstry was also in a fury. The return to phonics was long overdue after the "betrayal" of children by the "twisted ideology" of "child-centred learning" which had denied them the ability to read.

He reported that "even the Government now admits that the literacy hour has brought no dramatic improvement in standards". Odd that, as I recall government statistics showing the proportion of 11-year-olds reaching the expected reading standard in reading had risen from 67 per cent in 1997 to 84 per cent now.

On the same day, the Express ran a story about the head of "Britain's top primary" (never mind that the performance tables only cover England) who had succeeded by "ignoring" much of the literacy strategy.

The newspaper played up her criticism of the Government's over-prescriptive approach, but it was also honest enough to concede, further down the article, that she was no evangelist for a purely phonic approach either, arguing it was unsuitable for some children.

The Times had an eye-catching double-spread of six close-up photos of Ruth Kelly's face under the headline: "Read my lips: Kelly spells out a return to sounds-based approach to learning language". In an editorial, the paper derided alternative methods such as "look and say" as more like "sit and hope".

Overall this was a no-win situation for the Government. Although Ruth Kelly stressed she did not want to "pursue a prescriptive approach to phonics, to the exclusion of all else", the spin-doctors knew this would be interpreted as a full U-turn.

However, ministers could take comfort from the fact that the policy shift spiked one of the guns of the new Conservative leader David Cameron, after he gave strong backing to synthetic phonics.

Only the Guardian highlighted the concern of the profession ('Teachers anger at Kelly U-turn over phonics"), warning that union leaders were unhappy with all-out phonics.

Mike Baker is the BBC's education correspondent

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