Tabloids celebrate the return of the good old methods

10th June 2005 at 01:00
The "line to be taken" by ministers on the review of reading methods involved the sort of linguistic tight-rope walk that would have had Yes Minister's Jim Hacker writhing in confusion. As Sir Humphrey might have put it: "All you have to do, Minister, is say that you have found the solution to the problem that doesn't exist."

Thus Lord Adonis, the education minister, was given the short straw of appearing on the 8.10am "hot-spot" on the Today programme to explain why - despite reading standards being better than ever, and despite synthetic phonics forming part of the existing national literacy strategy - the Government wanted to review its place in the teaching of reading.

The review made a big media splash, not only because it offered the opportunity to re-open stories about the alleged rivalry between Lord Adonis and Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, but because phonics rivals bullying and grammar schools as one of those issues that always light the media's blue touch-paper.

The Daily Mail leapt on the story with almost religious enthusiasm, acclaiming: "Hallelujah! The penny drops at last".

The Daily Telegraph regarded the review's outcome as mere formality, declaring "the decision to embrace synthetic phonics one of the most dramatic U-turns in education policy".

It is an unwritten law of journalism that a simple story always trumps a complex one. So, few newspapers explored the contrast between exclusive use of synthetic phonics, on the one hand, and the current mixture of methods, including analytic and synthetic phonics, on the other.

Instead this was portrayed as a battle of phonics versus "look and say".

Or, in layman's terms, between learning the sounds of letters like we used to do and learning to read "by osmosis" (The Telegraph).

The carefully-honed phrase from the Department for Education and Skills'

press release - that "the debate now centres not on whether to teach phonics, but how" - cut little ice.

As The Sun saw it the Government "must hurry to put phonics back at the heart of English teaching".

For government spin doctors there were some uncomfortable moments but, overall, they got what they wanted: snatching back synthetic phonics from Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, who had threatened to make it a party political issue during the election.

Mike Baker is the education correspondent at BBC News

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