George Osborne’s decision to allow sixth form colleges to become academies is an imaginative solution to the problem discussed in this column some weeks ago.
Sixth form colleges are the only institution to have preserved some of the values of grammar schools in the comprehensive era. They concentrate academic skills, and allow a full range of subjects to be offered in a way that most comprehensives find impossible, because they have neither the right staff nor sufficient pupils across the curriculum. Bringing them into education’s new mainstream gives us a chance of offering a proper sixth form education in all areas of the country, and preventing subjects such as physics and German from dying out. They should be included in the educational spending review.
Credit too to Nick Gibb for his summary of the strengths of the mastery approach to maths based on work in Shanghai. “Shanghai mathematics teaching works,” he told The Guardian, ” because it is meticulous. Every step of a lesson is deliberate, purposeful and precise.” These characteristics should be present across teaching in all subjects. They are calculated to build the networks in the brain on which all learning depends, and which were well described by David Thomas in his recent article on teacher training on this site. .
David says that university departments tend to see this as “at best an interesting pastime for the curious,” but in fact more of them see it as a threat. If the goal of education is, as expressed by two recent directors of the London Institute of Education, to promote equality, then basing it on brain research, which accentuates differences in intellectual capacity, takes us in exactly the opposite direction.
I know of one prominent researcher in brain functioning who was forced out of their university’s education department precisely because their approach did not fit its political stance, and particularly that of the person given oversight of educational research. Make intellectual development the main focus of education and the progressives are finished. Mixed ability, that makes it more difficult for the highest attaining pupils to maximise their strengths, is a much better bet.
Slower learners, though, need “deliberate, purposeful and precise” teaching just as much as the high flyers. Take my pupil Peter, aged 8. Six months ago, his mother phoned saying that he was completely unable to read, and she had found no-one who could help. Beginning with Ruth Miskin’s Ditties (Read Write Inc) I worked very hard indeed with him for an hour, concentrating on having him focus on the information contained in letters, and blending this to make words rather than guessing.
The effort this took both of us had to be seen to be understood, and the issue was complicated by Peter’s difficulties with speech and pronunciation, for which he had been receiving speech therapy in his (private) school. Speech therapy, like other forms of teaching, needs constant reinforcement and practice if it is to be effective, and we had to keep going over the differences between b and d, and between vowel (voice) letters just to read four simple lines.
There could not have been a clearer demonstration of phonics and word-building (the former term for synthetic phonics) as the basis of learning to read, even for pupils who do not find this straightforward. Progress was slow, but each week Peter remembered more of what we’d worked on the week before, and after a couple of months he was reading three or four new pages of ditties per session, and using his new skills to work out words he hadn’t previously met. The key here was that the memory and skills were developing alongside each other – things we remember don’t have to be worked out from scratch, another demonstration of Hirsch’s idea of the importance of knowledge, and of my idea that knowledge frees the brain to think.
Next, however, we needed to add to phonics an understanding of the way in which language developed from its regular roots in Anglo-Saxon to the complex modern language.
This became imbued with French after the Norman conquest, and was then influenced by Latin, Greek, snobbery (see the OED entry on Dr Johnson’s error on “ache”), changes in pronunciation and shortcuts. Phonics still tells us much of what we need to know, but not all of it. Reading Burglar Bill, we meet the words “breakfast” and “says”. Both are shortcuts in the full pronunciation of the words, which can’t be read by phonics alone. “The” is probably the most common word in English, but to read it the pupil has to know that letters don’t always work on their own, but sometimes in groups – in other words, he has to add to what he already knows about the letter t.
The weakest readers I work with have not learned to do this, as they have not learned to progress beyond blending one letter at a time. Once the reasons for the most important of these features were explained, in terms simple enough for him to understand, Peter made more rapid progress, and read a page and a half of Burglar Bill with few mistakes, all of which involved new patterns that he learned quickly. His parents are astonished at the progress, and at the development of Peter’s spoken language.
I’ve gone into this level of detail because many teachers are still not clear on how to proceed with reading and spelling past the initial stages, and some have bought into a simplistic view of the language that tries to use phonic patterns to explain everything. So, I had to explain to a pupil on Wednesday why acsadent should be spelled accident, and how letters interact with each other, for example to soften or change a sound. The historical origins of these issues are set out in David Crystal’s Spell it Out, based on the computerisation of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the intellectual processes involved in working out what information is conveyed by the same group of letters in different words (should, shoulder, fruit, biscuit) in The Learning Brain.
Now we have established the importance of knowledge for pupils, we need to turn our attention to what teachers need to know. I agree with David Thomas that we can’t rely on our teacher training institutions to work this out and provide it.