Read the riot act to the phonics lobbyists

17th June 2005 at 01:00
I don't believe in silver bullets any more than I believe in werewolves, but I think I might know the secret of the phonics lobbyists' success.

Debates about the teaching of phonics have been around ever since anyone first tried to teach a child to read English. And as Peter Wilby eloquently pointed out last week, common sense alone would tell you that synthetic phonics, in a language as unphonetic as English, is unlikely to be the sole solution.

That isn't quite what he said, but beneath the surface of his description of the zeal of the green-ink brigade and the gullibility of those who adopt fads and fashions in the hope of an instant cure came a fairly clear message.

Think for a moment and you'll realise that life is complicated. So I ask again, how do these lobbyists work given that none of the people in the Department for Education and Skills strikes me as dimwitted? How on earth have they managed to persuade an Oxbridge graduate to cough up government money to look into not just the efficacy of phonics over other methods but one narrow branch of it?

Perhaps one of the reasons is that those in the DfES appear to believe, or at least act according to, the mantra that history teaches us that history teaches us nothing. If ever there was a self-fulfilling prophecy it is that one, because of course if you believe that to be true then you will learn nothing. If, however, we step outside that particular catch 22, look back and try and learn lessons from history, then it can be instructive.

Read, for example, the work of Katherine Bathurst, an early-years schools inspector 100 years ago, and you find that people faced exactly the same problems teaching children to read. This in turn led to the same debates.

In one of her reports, written in 1905, she notes the case of little Johnny sitting in a classroom daydreaming about playing outside as the teacher drills them in, "mysterious sounds: 'letter A, letter A' in a sing-song voice, or 'letter A says Ah' as the case may be." She goes on to add, "Hoary- headed men will spend hours discussing whether 'c-a-t' or 'ker-ar-te' are the best means of conveying the knowledge of how to read 'cat'. I must own an indifference to the point myself." But she goes on to note, "The many-coloured world has changed into a monotonous hue, and people say one thing so many times it makes him sleepy. 'Wake up, Johnny; it's not time to go to sleep yet. Be a good boy and watch teacher'."

Bathurst's energies and convictions lie less with the precise method and more with the child. And this, perhaps, gives us a second clue, as to the success of a certain type of lobbyist. The views of hoary-headed men of her day prevailed over Bathurst's position because they brought the language of scientific certainty to the messy business of learning to read. So, today, when DfES officials look at synthetic phonics they don't see quackery they see the laws of physics.

Perversely, in education, it is those who say there are no simple answers who are seen as the flakes and the charlatans. Anyone who has the temerity to suggest that we don't know for sure what works, or that, even if we did, implementation needs to be adapted to the needs of the child, is less likely to be trusted than someone who says - do this, however, implausible the "this" may be.

For sanity to prevail, this must change. To borrow from another folk tale, we need to expose the nakedness beneath the lobbyists' false cloak of science so that policy makers can learn lessons from the complexity of real life.

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