Coming home from the Party Conference, I pick up an email from a parent following a "desperate" internet search for help for her son, 13, who has been described by his school as having low ability and is getting no effective teaching. Their address is on my way home, and I see Simon, as we will call him, the same afternoon.
Simon gets up when I came into the room, shakes hands confidently, and puts on his green tinted glasses. How long has he had them? Since he was nine, and since then, words have no longer moved about the page. This is the first clue – if he has not been able to learn properly for his first four years in school because of sensitivity to light, he will have missed the basics, and no one has put in the extra teaching to build them up. Simon's reading is not too bad, but hesitant. He has a particular problem with spelling, does not know any multiplication tables, and uses his fingers to count.
Simon understands my explanation of English spelling and starts to apply it. His reading speeds up and he pays more attention to detail. He makes immediate progress on his 2x table and picks up my introduction to French, which the school does not allow him to study, first time – gender, silent letters, avoir, pronunciation, spelling patterns – and writes accurately from memory the sentence J'ai une montre. After two more sessions, he has remembered all he has learned, begun to tackle the rest of the tables and to join his handwriting (I use French lined paper for this), and to read suitably demanding text, from books I've supplied as he never brings books from school.
I described my work with the second pupil, aged six, here. Recent reports from his carer confirm that he is making good progress, and his problem has been turned round by four hours of focused teaching. We will return to him in a moment.
The good book is David Crystal's Spell it Out, which shows, step by step, how current spelling developed from the phonically regular spelling of Old English, as the language grew from around 50,000 words to over a million. The process is not unlike putting patches on a computer programme, either to speed it up or to tackle a glitch. Double letters, for example, were introduced to mark a short vowel (voice sound), but then dropped at the end of most words to save the hassle of writing them. The phonically consistent letter þ is replaced with the two letters th , as William the Conqueror's French scribes don't like anything Anglo-Saxon. Similarly, cwen becomes queen. Then anything of Latin origin is given precedence over anything English, so there is no double letter in rapid. Along the way we have groups of letters such as -ed and ough adapted for whatever purposes happen to suit printers and the compilers of dictionaries.
The whole resembles a Tudor house – when the need arises, add a bit on, but use broadly similar materials – wood frames for Little Moreton Hall, letters for spelling. It creaks, but it stands up, and it lasts. Wholesale reform is impossible without knocking down the house and starting again, which no-one wants to do, following the disaster of the initial teaching alphabet.
The implications for policy are:
1. The phonics check gives us the means to identify reading problems early, and take immediate action to fix them. The pupil premium gives schools the resources to apply to the problem. The check should be adjusted next year to include common irregular words such as the, was, are or come, and the proportion of non-words should be reduced.
2. Teachers and assistants need to be trained to teach the pupil in front of them, and to adjust their teaching to meet individual needs rather than apply centrally dictated formulae. This does not mean using so-called "alternative methods" to phonics, but providing different patterns of memory work, practice and reinforcement.
3. All schools should know about the effects of sensitivity to light and interruptions to early language development, and include them in their screening programmes.
4. The teaching of handwriting is in a dreadful state, and HMI have said that secondary teachers do not have time to pay attention to it as there are too few marks for it in examinations. No-one should leave primary school without being able to write properly.
5. Teaching has been crippled by excessive paperwork, and this must cease. Specialist external reports may need high levels of detail, but day to day school records do not. The child's work provides a proper record, provided of course that it is properly marked. Individual Education Plans should normally be limited to three to five bullet points, with nothing written down unless it needs to be.