One aspect of a free press is that not much space is devoted to celebrating the achievements of the Government. What a blessing that is. There are plenty of countries in the world with a state controlled media where focus on official success stories is a dominant theme. Most of us would not wish to live in such countries.
Still, occasionally it is worth looking beyond the front pages with their revelations of splits and sleaze scandals for more heartening items. Those who looked thoroughly at today’s coverage might have spotted that there has been a dramatic improvement in the number of children who are learning to read,
After the Conservatives came into power in 2010, the decision was taken to require schools to use phonics to teach children to read.
Another reform was to introduce a test for all six-year-olds, called the Phonics Screening Check. Each child read out a list of 40 words to their teacher. In 2012, the first year of the test, just 58 per cent of six-year-olds reached the pass mark of 32 out of the 40.
An international study of nine-year-olds’ reading ability in 50 countries showed that England has risen from joint 10th place in 2011 to joint eight place in 2016. This didn’t happen by accident. Children are able to read fluently who would have been struggling to read had there not been a change of Government in 2010. So all Conservatives are entitled to feel proud. True, there was a Coalition Government but the change was no thanks to the Lib Dems – several of whose MPs signed an Early Day Motion attacking the policy.
David Cameron and Michael Gove will rightly feel their efforts have been vindicated. But one individual emerges as positively heroic. Nick Gibb, the Schools Standards Minister, for years has been unapologetically obsessed about phonics. For him it is a moral crusade. A sense of that came through from a speech he gave yesterday:
“I vividly recall visiting classrooms around the country where pupils were being failed; too many were unable to read. Effectively, locked out of achieving their potential. This was not through lack of effort from them or their teachers, but because of a dogmatic romanticism that prevented the spread of evidence-based teaching practices.
“Those who stood in the way of evidence-based phonics reaching England’s classrooms are responsible for stifling human potential and negatively affecting the life chances of countless children.
“We are the only OECD nation where literacy is no better amongst the 16-24 year olds than amongst the over 55s. What more stark statistic could there be to exemplify the damage dogmatists have inflicted on our education system?”
The evidence was there, but the educational establishment, the teaching unions, the “blob”, were driven by ideology. Gibb adds:
“Prior to our reforms, schools were using variations of a method called ‘look and say’ to teach reading, in which children encountered frequently used words over and over again until they were recognised automatically. Where schools were using phonics they were mixing and matching with these other methods, which significantly inhibited its effectiveness. Contextual clues encouraging children to guess at words – rather than sound them out – were widely encouraged, breaking the link between the alphabetic code and spoken language.
“The theory was that this was an easier way to learn to read than learning the 44 sounds of the alphabet and how to blend them into words. In reality, there was no evidence to support the ‘look and say’ approach; it was simply in keeping with the philosophical opposition to formal instruction, which was so ubiquitous in teacher training colleges and education faculties.”
Now that teachers can see for themselves the success, the hostility of the unions is softening. Yet there is a lesson for the Conservatives in pressing ahead with important reforms even when – especially when – established left wing interests are seeking to block them. Oliver Letwin has rightly warned that Brexit must not involve forgetting about everything else – a radical Conservative agenda must be pursued. The battle to press on with Universal Credit is a current example. As David Gauke, the Work and Pensions Secretary, told Parliament yesterday:
“As the evidence builds that universal credit is positively transforming lives, it will become clearer and clearer that Labour Front Benchers are on the wrong side of the argument.”
The success over phonics offers a heartening message that determination in applying Conservative policies will be rewarded.