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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.

“A couple of months ago, my nine year old daughter couldn’t read. Now she can.” So began an article a little over 25 years ago in the Times Educational Supplement by Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood – and editor of a major reading scheme for primary schools. Last week, I was, at last, able to video one of the foundation lessons that led to this success. Here it is. Sue is not a Conservative, with or without capitalisation, but, as she says, “What have politics got to do with reading and writing?”

Not everyone shares this view. Professor Alice Bradbury, co-author of the recent UCL paper attacking phonics, considers the use of intervention groups for weak readers a form of discrimination, as it results in a narrowing of the curriculum and hence a restriction of opportunity. This is not a new position. At my interview in Stepney Green in 1975, the headmaster described remedial work as “lowering the boom” on pupils, though he accepted my argument that, if there was a ceiling, it was my job to punch holes in it. This remains the case. The 11 year old in the foundation lesson was frustrated at not being able to read “like everyone else”, and was beginning to do so by the end of the session. Her mother, teacher, and teaching assistant, sat in on Zoom, and were all very pleased; the word “amazing” escaping the teaching assistant, as it had the Deputy Head observing my previous lesson, with J.

Before going into detail, I will say that these opponents, including Professor Becky Francis, Director of the Education Endowment Foundation, have a point. My pre-Plowden primary school had two streams, the upper with a youngish, intelligent, forward-thinking teacher, and the lower with a thug who ruled by terror and of whose pupils nothing was expected at all. Professor Francis’ assertion that ability grouping is “symbolically violent” was true in that context, and this man’s violence was more than symbolic. Around a third of the upper stream passed the 11+.

But this does not mean that grouping pupils to ensure that they all have the skills they need to succeed at school and in their working life is restricting. Most Conservatives see it as liberating, and we have the shining example of Michaela, and schools with a similar approach, to show for it. My focus on literacy and giving up hope of reforming the chaos that I saw in Labour’s Inner London Education Authority, led to success in an essential, but limited, goal. Faced with the same situation, Katharine Birbalsingh went for the bakery rather than the bread, and got it. She is the person best placed to take charge of social mobility, as she is making the biggest contribution to it.

Professor Francis rightly said recently that tuition had to be of high quality to make an impact. Successive governments have failed to understand this, and put people in charge of it who either see teachers as benighted souls in need of detailed prescription from a Cromwellian “strategy” – as if education were a military operation – or who believe in outsourcing to the point at which it does not matter whether those in charge have the faintest idea of what they’re trying to do. The Department for Children, Schools and Families binned my submission to Sir James Rose’s inquiry into dyslexia without even showing it to him. He was furious to hear this, and has since endorsed my approach. Other interested parties, including Matt Hancock and Labour’s education spokesman, should consider how far it may help them reach their goals.

It is based on accurate teaching of the use of the alphabet in English – it is more like a chart of a great river than a grid – and on the increasingly convincing evidence from brain research. Authorities and pressure groups, from dyslexia organisations to the civil service, will, no doubt, continue to judge according to their wits. Parents, teachers, and pupils will speak as they find.