Take a leaf out of the Scots' book

17th May 1996 at 01:00
Colin Harrison advises Chris Woodhead to look north for a non-confrontational model of tackling reading standards. Mr Woodhead is in a difficult position, " stated The TES leader of May 10, "frustrated" because the messages that have been going out about the need for more systematic teaching of reading "are still being ignored in too many places".

I share the view of many commentators that there is an urgent need for large-scale staff development related to the teaching of reading in England and Wales, but I feel anger and frustration - not towards teachers, but at the manner in which Chris Woodhead made use of the report on the teaching of reading in 45 inner London schools to launch an attack on "trendy teaching methods" and the teachers who are accused of using them.

What educational philosophy is revealed in the Woodhead approach? Three principles seem to be operating: to scold, to threaten and to blame. Teachers are publicly scolded for the low reading achievement of their pupils; teachers, local authorities and teacher-training colleges are threatened with new tests, new powers to inspect, and new league tables; teachers and teacher educators are blamed for wilfully choosing not to implement instructional practices which would produce more effective results.

I felt anger and frustration not only because I regard teaching literacy to inner-city children as one of the most difficult jobs in education, and because such teachers need all the encouragement they can get, but also because the discourse of derision is anti-educational - it does not bring about change or improvement; rather, it causes those who are scolded, threatened and blamed to react negatively, to marginalise themselves, and to shrink towards resignation or apathy. In the present case, such reactions would be understandable but disastrous What alternative strategies might Chris Woodhead have adopted? One strategy might have been to look north, to Scotland, where his colleagues in the inspectorate have been addressing the problem of low reading standards over the past three years. The Scottish approach has been less adversarial and more constructive than that adopted by Chris Woodhead, and it has already produced dividends.

In 1993, serious concerns about reading standards in some schools within Lothian led to meetings between HMI and local education authority representatives to discuss how to address the problem. Recognising that a great deal of important research had been conducted on reading since 1980, it was decided to commission a review of the literature on the teaching of reading. This review was written and delivered within six months. In October 1994, the Scottish Office Education Department convened a seminar to consider the review and its implications. The group was made up of HM inspectors, members of the regional psychological services, teacher educators, and LEA advisers.

Following its deliberations, three initiatives were put in place. First, Lothian region staff set up a programme to monitor reading, with particular emphasis on schools in social priority areas; in administering the programme, informal contact was maintained with the Scottish Office.

Second, the main findings and recommendations for practice from the research review were distributed to every school in Scotland; the Minister for Education at the Scottish Office gave a press conference welcoming the report, and emphasising its importance in the context of the need for more advice and support for teachers.

Third, the Scottish Office initiated and gave support to an ambitious project aimed at producing an interactive CD-Rom on the teaching of reading, containing video clips of good practice, based on the philosophy of the research review. This will be used as a staff-development tool by schools and parent groups.

The Scottish approach could hardly differ more from the adversarial stance demonstrated by Chris Woodhead. Where Woodhead characterises teachers as impervious to change, the Scottish Office characterises them as capable of significant development and change, provided that they are given encouragement and support, and they see the inspectorate as an important engine for such change. Where Woodhead sees teacher educators as dangerously "trendy", the Scottish Office sees them as important contributors in two ways - first in mediating research evidence in a form which is both comprehensible and relevant; second in collaborating in decision making.

The Scottish Inspectorate clearly sees its job as increasing the professionalism of teachers. The evidence of inspectors has been used to inform a series of publications whose aim is to offer guidelines for good teaching, and the inspectors glean their ideas from the literature, but also, very importantly, from schools themselves. In doing this, the Inspectorate sends out clear signals that the teacher is a valuable and respected source of information.

In my view, the Scots have every reason to admire and respect those who teach reading. Let me confess that I have some knowledge of these matters, for I admit to being the author of the research review which the Scottish Office commissioned, a digest of which has been distributed to every school in Scotland. In preparing it I visited six schools in Lothian, including the school with the poorest reading achievement. At the end of my visit, I wrote in my field notes: "How do we know that the school with the poorest reading scores in Scotland is not offering the best teaching of reading in this country?"

I wrote this not because I had been won over by the dedication and idealism of the staff, but because I had been humbled and (I'm slightly ashamed to say) astonished at the professional knowledge and understanding of the colleagues who were teaching reading in that school.

At the same time, I met a five-year-old who couldn't hold a pencil or identify a cow in a picture book. Thinking back to that moment, I'm reminded of one of the sections reported as having been deleted from last week's Office for Standards in Education report: "Weaknesses do not occur because the teachers are less well qualified or more inept than their colleagues elsewhere . . . teaching reading in these schools is a particularly difficult task."

It may also be that, on OFSTED's own figures, the teachers in those London boroughs are doing an outstanding job. The TES reported that in these boroughs 80 per cent of seven-year-olds are behind in reading. At age 11, only 60 per cent are reported as being below average. If we remind ourselves that by definition 50 per cent of the population is below average, this suggests that the children have caught up to a degree that would appear to merit a national enquiry, in order that other LEAs might learn how to achieve so much.

I share Chris Woodhead's view that more staff development is needed for teachers of reading. I do not share his opinion that the problem is "trendy" teacher educators.

Some of the problems to which he refers - the teaching of phonics through letters rather than letter groups, and ritual daily listening to children read individually, for example - are examples of "traditional" practices, which teacher educators have been attempting to get teachers to rethink for two decades. A press campaign for "phonics and whole-class teaching" is hardly going to put matters right. What is needed is surely a co-ordinated and sustained approach to staff development, one which eschews the discourse of derision, and instead brings together professionals from all areas connected with reading, and which draws upon the collegiality and mutual respect which the Scots have modelled for us so effectively.

Colin Harrison is reader in education at the University of Nottingham and a former president of the United Kingdom Reading Association.

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