RRF Conference 2006: D. Hepplewhite 'Keep It Simple'

Transcripts and Reports of Talks given at past RRF Conferences.
Susan Godsland

RRF Conference 2006: D. Hepplewhite 'Keep It Simple'

Post by Susan Godsland »

RRF Conference, 3rd November 2006 KEEP IT SIMPLE - Debbie Hepplewhite

Debbie started by paying tribute to the founder of the UK Reading Reform Foundation, Mona McNee, and others who have informed her over the years. Debbie commented that we are losing many people from the teaching profession who are feeling overwhelmed. She said that the unions were not doing a good enough job and teachers feel so far removed from the General Teaching Council that they do not support it.

Debbie went into infant teaching to find out what was going wrong with literacy standards in good junior schools with good teachers, but when she attended NLS training, she was shocked that trainers were telling her to get children guessing from pictures. Her response was, ‘But it’s my weakest readers who guess’. Subsequently, the biggest aspect which has driven Debbie on has been the attitude of advisers to questions, and she is battling to this day with her local authority. There is no mechanism to hold anyone in authority to account whilst, in contrast, teachers and headteachers feel a great burden of accountability for standards measured in national testing. Are teachers pressurised to be more accountable to the prescription, however, than to the children themselves?

Jim Rose must not be the only one to be ‘piggy in the middle’ between teachers (many of them disaffected) and ‘the people at the top’. We must not compromise our principles of transparency just because we now have the Rose Report and, in any event, the Rose Report may not be well implemented with all the in-fighting between powerful advisers, such as the early years advisers, and the government tendency to always ‘tie-in’ with past documents.

Debbie stated that being challenging isn’t being negative – it’s just raising awkward questions. She has challenged local authority advisers and suggests that they need to be more than conduits for government advice. The RRF website has made a big difference, leading to Nick Gibb, M.P., making a major contribution to the debate, but, significantly, he has seen the matter of reading standards as a cross-party issue.

Another person Debbie found to be good at responding when so many ‘faceless’ people failed to reply to her letters was Keith Lloyd, former OFSTED Chief Inspector for primary schools. He advised that politics and diplomacy needed to be taken to account in the debate, but Debbie replied that she doesn’t ‘do politics and diplomacy’ and argued that they have no place in matters of education and science.

Apart from noting that people in key positions such as in the Basic Skills Agency and the unions were subverting the Rose Report, Debbie also suggested that the government’s and Jim Rose’s vision is far too small. As had already been mentioned during the conference by delegates, the problem is not just teaching in the Foundation Stage and Key Stage 1 but also at Key Stages 2, 3, 4 and adult education. Debbie felt that we had ‘lost the plot’ in primary education by telling children their national curriculum ‘level’ by a number and a letter. This is all well and good if the children are level 4 but what if they are only level 2 as a consequence of ‘nature, nurture and the education system’?

Debbie related an anecdote about a friend of hers who runs a pre-school and had recently attended some local authority training sessions which had laid stress on evidencing achievement in Foundation Stage profiles. Debbie commented that these need to be simplified and the guidance debated. She quoted a comment from a four-year-old which had been mentioned on the Times Educational Supplement on-line forum. The child had said ‘The teachers sit over there and write a lot’. The minutiae have become ridiculous. Advisers are saying things such as ‘Not everyone agrees with the Rose report – if you don’t agree with it you don’t have to do it’. There is great irony in the fact that teachers have to provide evidence-based profiles but then are told that they do not have to implement the Rose recommendations when ‘the simple view of reading’ is heavily evidenced in appendix 1 (unlike the government’s previous ‘searchlights reading strategies’ advice!). Some teachers have to do profiles for 70+ children.

The most challenging schools are put under a lot of formal pressure, when what they really need is informal support. On the TES forum, teachers have been saying that they did what Debbie suggested and it made a huge difference, but that these were individual teachers. St Michael’s of Stoke Gifford has achieved marvellous results over a period of ten years.

Debbie held up a 200-page folder weighing 2.1 kg, produced not by the government but by people who could claim great authority like Ofsted inspectors and advisers. There are 18 different weighted ‘bands’ for tracking progress, and Debbie read a few snippets to give a flavour of the advice. She said she could not describe the contempt she felt for such a development and this had to stop. These children did not yet have to attend school and practitioners, who were not even trained teachers and who got paid only a few pounds an hour, were placed under the same pressure and expectations to complete the same paperwork.

Secondary teachers often don’t understand children’s problems – they need common ground among themselves in terms of their phonics knowledge. Who takes responsibility for reading and spelling in the secondary schools? When around 60-80% of secondary pupils have weak spelling, surely all teachers should be responsible for good modelling of the adult skills of reading and spelling? We could have a documentary DVD to educate all teachers ‘at a stroke’ with the government’s access to the media and seemingly bottomless pot to produce glossy manuals.

When Debbie is conducting training, she distributes a handout including two pages of extracts from the Rose report. She gets trainees to put dots beneath non-decodable words. This results in very few dots, but she then points out that what is decodable for these trainees is not decodable for children aged 4 and 5 – nor for pupils aged 10, 14 or 16, if they have been left to deduce the code for themselves and consequently have inadequate code knowledge. English is entirely decodable, provided that you know the code. By grouping tricky words such as ‘could’, ‘would’ and ‘should’, children get the point very quickly. So how many regular words do they need to see in order to see the pattern? – not many. Simply by grouping the more tricky words by their spellings, these words would become transparent.

Leading people in the RRF do not want Phase 1 as in the new Framework: teachers may wait for Johnny to be good at rhyming and alliteration before they start teaching phonics. Nowadays teachers just want to be told what to do – this is a sin. They have lost confidence in themselves because of the degree of prescription. The government rhetoric about personalised learning is nonsense in that we are class teachers of 30 children or more – not personal tutors. Sometimes we just know that Johnny should be in the cohort below – he just needs more time. There is no flexibility in the system, however, for Johnny to go in the cohort below because secondary schools will return Johnny to his original cohort in order to take GCSEs at the correct time. So what happened to gentle transition into secondary schools? If we leave Johnny to play in the sandpit because he is ‘not ready’, then what will happen to him in our inflexible education system?

Where OFSTED is concerned, Debbie believes in accountability, but teachers in struggling schools are being dealt with in the wrong way. There is the possibility of public humiliation with no right to reply – no opportunity to describe the full context as so much is swept under the carpet. Headteachers are trained that they are not ‘good headteachers’ if they look into the issues, support their teachers or raise questions.

The Rose report gives us the chance of a fresh start. The government has lorded it over us and has now realised that it got things wrong. The DfES needs a slot on its own website pointing people towards the RRF even if this does reveal criticism. So what? Open forums are needed and people at the top must not be faceless. People could accept those in authority making mistakes if they were simply more accessible to us. Teachers care so much and the teaching climate must change.

Debbie mentioned Reading Recovery and Catch-Up. There is international concern about Reading Recovery and yet some government departments continue to support Reading Recovery despite the Rose recommendations. The Rose report did not name leading programmes such as Jolly Phonics and Read-Write Inc., but Reading Recovery was named. It is not acceptable that leading phonics programmes which are based on research and researched in their own right are described in a derogatory manner as ‘commercial’ programmes by Ofsted inspectors and even by Barry Sheerman (Chairman of the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee), when authors such as Sue Lloyd etc. are leading educationalists and have led the way. These programmes have been written because there is a great need for them.

Debbie is not passionate about phonics – she is passionate about justice. She is convinced that if teachers had sufficiently good information that they would make the correct informed choices.