John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling.
Westminster Forum events bring together groups of high-profile speakers, and give each a very short slot, followed by questions. They are expensive – currently £210+VAT, including a transcript – but offer a concentration of information and opinion that is hard to match. I attended one last month on the new arrangements for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. It was no fault of the organisers that nearly everyone there found it depressing.
Since 1973, when Margaret Thatcher put Baroness Warnock in charge of a “committee on the education of handicapped children and young people”, this has been a field of dreams, wishful thinking and strife. The latest policy initiative, based on personal integrated health and education plans, is no different. Following the Warnock report, one Chief Education Officer – from memory, in Cumbria – took her suggestions literally, spent the entire budget for her authority on them, and had to resign. Other authorities scaled back their operations, some leaving schools with no support at all for the most difficult cases. Contributors to the Westminster Forum said that authorities were watching their backs and meeting deadlines by “out-sourcing” plans, which then consisted of generic phrases with little or no individual content.
At the same time, schools were expected to handle extreme behaviour without detriment to the education of other pupils. A contributor agreed with me that this was asking the impossible. In the most extreme case I saw as an inspector, in a primary school in the Midlands, a child with Tourette’s syndrome continually blurted out in a loud voice, and was liable to violent tantrums that required restraint by three adults – the class teacher, his dedicated assistant and a senior leader. Each episode lasted around 15 minutes, wasting around eight hours teaching and learning time for the class, and with a risk of injury. This was not “inclusion”, but institutionalised disruption.
Provision for dyslexia and dyscalculia is no better. Errors by Labour and the Lib Dem coalition minister, Sarah Teather, left both in the control of major voluntary organisations that have vested interests in the supply of costly assessments and teaching. Their methods are blinkered, ineffective, and inconsistent with current research evidence on brain development.
Calling out numbers for children to repeat backwards, for example, may indicate a weak memory. It does not tell us the cause of the problem, or how it might be tackled, and does not reflect the way the memory is used in practice. The test can also be gamed. You can improve your score by grouping numbers mentally as they are called out, and reduce it by not trying too hard, so that you can obtain extra time in examinations by cheating. Almost all of the teaching is similarly hidebound. It usually takes the person back to the very beginning, rather than targeting the specific points of difficulty for the individual and helping them to adjust their thinking to deal with them.
I’ve previously mentioned David Crystal’s, Spell It Out, which uses the computerisation of the full Oxford English Dictionary to explain how variations in spelling occurred, and why. He describes a small, phonically regular language, of around 50,000 words, expanding over a millennium to one with at least half a million words, containing many variations of historical origin, most notably, in my view, the result of the huge influx of French after the Norman conquest. As these variations run throughout the language, readers meet them in any book they pick up, and can only read new words effectively if they understand how they work – these words will not be “sounded out”.
Explaining this, alongside practice in basic phonics, has been the basis of the teaching I’ve developed over the past 40 years and my website has case after case in which the approach has turned round previously intractable problems. The teaching remains free, either in Linton or over the internet, and interested teachers are welcome to sit in.
In keeping with the season of goodwill, may I please also mention the small charity, A Book of My Own, that provides books of their choice to children who are in care (including foster care) or who might otherwise not have books. Please get in touch if you would like to contribute, or know of anyone who might benefit. Merry Christmas!