John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.
The influence of major Education Secretaries can be measured in decades.
Butler’s 1944 Act lasted two, Crosland’s secondary modern comprehensives, four. Michael Gove’s reforms are into their second, despite the early need to accommodate Liberal Democrats, and the major error of listening to Dominic Cummings. Michaela and Katharine Birbalsingh shine brightly, but Nadhim Zahawi and his new team have plenty to do.
Zahawi made a brilliant start at our Conference. Born in Saddam’s Baghdad, arriving in Britain with no English, he learns to read – key point – graduates in engineering from UCL, makes a fortune from YouGov, and becomes a member of Her Majesty’s Government. No latter-day Dick Whittington, though. Like another noted Conservative, he didn’t turn. Zahawi’s story is one of single-minded determination and staying power, backed by intellect.
It was a nice touch to call for a round of applause for Oxford University’s achievements in vaccination. But Zahawi and the new skills minister, Alex Burghardt, are also intent on reviving Further Education and apprenticeships as an alternative route to qualification. I recently explained the benefits of this – including Btech – to one of my students in the care sector – and expanding degree apprenticeships is the key improving the supply of nurses. A review of Btech is a good idea – taking a scythe to it is not. At the heart of this change is the final recognition that Blair’s huge expansion of universities has been a disaster both for the students saddled with permanent debt, and for the Treasury, for which loans have become a money pit. The argument that apprenticeships are for “other people’s children” does not diminish enthusiasm for them in Germany, whose economy is both more successful, and more strictly regulated, than ours.
Work is also needed on the continuing review into special needs, and the major changes in reading teaching brought in under Nick Gibb.
Since Baroness Warnock’s review of special educational needs provision, the education of these children has become focused almost exclusively on dealing with severe behavioural problems, with next to no attention to the teaching of reading. The waste of human potential has been enormous, and half-hearted attempts in the last years of the Labour governments to redress the balance by means of private tuition were held back by yet another series of authoritarian guidelines to tutors, written by apparatchiks who knew little or nothing about the work. This error was repeated at the height of the pandemic by recruiting unqualified and inexperienced companies to organise tuition.
The key to progress is to introduce rigorous monitoring of all initiatives in terms of their impact on pupils’ progress, rather than the self-advertisement of their proponents. We have not had a nationally standardised test of reading since our opponents hijacked the membership of Margaret Thatcher’s commission on falling reading test scores, and decided that the best solution was to abolish the test. NS6, as it was, would require modest alterations to be returned to service, and would give us a clear idea both of where we stand nationally, and of the real standing of individual pupils. It would also give decisive evidence on the ability of the Reading Recovery programme, which refuses to include phonics, to deliver long-term progress.
The phonics programme itself is half-finished. The key evidence in its favour, the research in Clackmannanshire that showed benefits in word recognition and spelling from initial phonics teaching five years later, has since been reinforced by work showing that this was essential to orient children towards using information from print to read (the “alphabetic principle”) rather than guessing. This information does not, however, tell us all we need to know, as the same letter or group of letters can indicate different sounds. One of my pupils, fourteen and assessed as dyslexic, has become engrossed in the diary of Anne Frank. She was stumped last week by “whitish”, which phonics would not help her distinguish from “British”. To read it, we had to go back to “white”. But it was knowledge of the language beyond phonics that solved the problem.
This little example supports the French Professor Stanislas Dehaene’s theory that we learn by building up ideas based on our experience, and modify them when something doesn’t fit. There could not be a more accurate picture of the process of learning to read in English – or indeed in French, which has four times as many silent letters as English, and uses them to tie things in grammatically. My teaching of reading and spelling, on which I based my application for fellowship of the Chartered College of Teaching, makes these variations clear to children and adults in plain English. It was reported in the Times Educational Supplement 25 years ago, and repeated this morning, pro bono, with an 11 year old non-reader, with his deputy headteacher watching. It changes lives. It deserves serious attention as part of the special needs review.