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When C-A-T spells war

The people who work in education are kind and gentle, dedicating their lives to the betterment of humanity, utterly committed to . . . Sorry, I'll rephrase that. The people who work in education are kind and gentle, until such time as they disagree about something, at which point they may transform into great sabre-fanged slavering monsters.

Lemuel Gulliver's tale of Lilliput, where people fought over whether a boiled egg should be cracked at the big or small end, has nothing on education dogfights. The sweetest, most peaceable individuals can become contorted with rage about matters to which most other citizens are utterly indifferent.

If you want to start a war, mention "sign language" at a conference of teachers of the deaf, "dyslexia" at a meeting of psychologists, or "phonics" to an assembly of reading experts. Light the blue touchpaper and retire at least 25 metres.

Before I embark any further on this little homily about phonics and related matters, let me emphasise that I am in favour of teaching phonics. It is common in these emotional matters that some prat will not read a single word I say, and assume that I am against phonics. I eat phonics, love phonics with a passion, sleep with my hand on a phonics textbook. Got that?

In this complex sociology, however, nothing is simple. You like phonics? Good.

But which form do you like? Is it synthetic phonics (c-a-t equals cat), analytical phonics (er... have you got half an hour?), or wibblywobbly phonics? (One of these may be a figment of my imagination, fuelled by the intensity of the row.) From time to time one faction will produce research evidence to reinforce their belief or torpedo that of their sworn enemy. The latest of these is a carefully conducted study in Clackmannanshire arguing the case for synthetic phonics. It might equally have been a project in Albania showing that the use of sign language makes your nose drop off, or a study from Pluto proving conclusively that wibblywobbly phonics cures piles.

Some research literature is unreplicated, or inconclusive. Much of it is divided, sometimes evenly, so take your pick. In any case, teachers will often make work what they personally believe in, and foul up what they don't, so consistent research findings may inform practice, but not guarantee success in every context.

A great deal depends on what kind of outcome measure is used. A programme might make an impact on children's practical skill, but not on their deeper understanding, or vice versa.

There has been research into teaching strategies where scores improved according to one test, but not on a different test of the same subject matter.

In other experiments there were improvements in the short term, but not over a longer period.

None of these caveats stops the bloodshed among educators, because it is fuelled by primeval drives and urges.

Politicians and the public like the idea of phonics, irrespective of whether the approach works, because it represents orderstructure and tradition (what we did at school). Educators, by contrast, are sometimes impelled by a strong sense of territory ("Get orf my land").

There is great fun to be had with phonics. When John Daniels and Hunter Diack, two hilarious characters at Nottingham university, wrote their Royal Road Readers, which contained words that were phonically "pure", they used to invent rather rude unpublishable sentences and fall about laughing.

Some of the descriptions of synthetic phonics are unintentionally funny.

The approach can begin with six key letters: a, i, n, p, s and t. Not too many short words are possible using only these letters. One text on the subject gives the po-faced example: "A tit sat in a pan". This begs the question: which particular tit was it, of the many available?

But in today's grey, Sats-driven world, maybe we need more educational dust-ups where people with polar opposite views knock seven bells out of each other. I want to see feisty groups formed to attack or defend the following vital issues in education.

1. Bog rolls in school toilets: which way round should the paper hang down - against the wall, or away from it?

2. Playground duty: do you patrol in a clockwise or anticlockwise direction?

3. Assembly: "All Things Bright and Beautiful" sung in unison, or yet another out-of-tune rendering of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" from the deputy head?

4. Tim Brighouse (supporters dish out doughnuts to pupils), or Chris Woodhead (supporters wear crinkled doormat wig and a pair of cruel-rimmed glasses)?

Tim is not dim. Run, Tim, run. Run or be hit by a tit.

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