John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.
We like to think that information travels the world at the speed of light, but this is not the case with books. It took a personal visit and invitation by Dame Rachel De Sousa to make E.D. Hirsch’s work, originally in book form, widely known in the UK. Some key texts, notably Nobel laureate Eric Kandel’s In Search of Memory, are still little known here.
The latest example I’ve met is Dr Sally Shaywitz’ Overcoming Dyslexia, based on the work of the Yale Centre for the Study of Learning and Attention.
Yale pioneered the use of MRI scanning, and the evidence in Chapter 6 of this book explains why some highly intelligent people who have overcome dyslexia still read slowly – they rely on frontal areas of the brain, which are used for decoding, rather than on what Dr Shaywitz terms the “word form area”, a form of long-term memory, in which information about specific words – eg the difference between should and shoulder – is stored, allowing us to read words without working them out from scratch. Decoding, which is based on phonics, is the key to the early stages of learning to read. The word form area stores the knowledge of variations that enables us to build on this and develop fluent reading in English.
The issue of memory brings me to maths, and the controversy over the government’s new check on multiplication tables. The National Education Union has splashed on its website that this will be “of no educational benefit to children”, a view that is not only mistaken, but deeply disturbing. HMI have pointed to serious gaps in children’s knowledge of maths, and I regularly have to teach tables, beginning with 2x, to pupils aged fourteen and fifteen, who need them for their GCSE courses. They’ve been taught to count in multiples instead, usually keeping track with their fingers, which means they can’t use their tables for other work, including division, algebra, and factors. They have similarly weak knowledge of basic number combinations, so that they have to work out simple addition (again, often with fingers) and can’t subtract accurately.
So, I do not use the term “disturbing” lightly. Does the NEU really want teenagers to be counting on their fingers? Because that is the consequence of the progressive attempt to cut mathematics education off from its base in arithmetic, which the union is now endorsing. I doubt whether most of its members would agree, but they, unlike one of its joint general secretaries, do not hold PhDs in ideology. Nick Gibb pointed out last week that the proportion of white working class pupils reaching the benchmark on the phonics check for six-year-olds – also opposed by the NUT prior to amalgamation – has risen from 58 per cent to 83 per cent. This is what progress looks like, and it does not include counting on our fingers.
Effective teaching of multiplication tables has received almost no attention from teacher trainers in universities, who see it as beneath their notice. My approach is downloadable for free here. I’m happy to help anyone who needs help with teaching them, as parent or teacher, pro bono.
Similar principles apply to all elements in GCSE – once you know how to carry out the procedures, and do so carefully, the test is not difficult. The HMI report linked above, however, says that Grade C prior to the current reforms did not show that candidates could do this, which is not surprising given the level of cheating that was taking place in school-based assessments.
Finally, a fair report from Ofqual on supposedly severe grading in languages at A level. For decades, ineffective teaching methods, based on mixed ability teaching and a lack of attention to grammar, have led to a helter-skelter of standards and GCSE grade boundaries chasing each other down the slippery slope. The effect has fed through to A level, and indeed to degree courses. It is high time it stopped, and Ofqual has decided not to relax boundaries any further. At the same time, it needs to manage the difficult task of ensuring rigour for the highest attaining pupils, and a fair test for all – a gentle slope at the beginning, in all types of test, is the best way to do this, and to minimise stress for all concerned.