RRF Conference 2007: Sue Lloyd ' The education system...'

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

RRF Conference 2007: Sue Lloyd ' The education system...'

Post by Susan Godsland »

Due to its length this talk is split into 2 postings:

The education system itself creates the problems in education -Sue Lloyd

Part 1.

During my teaching career I have seen many things that have made me realise that it is the educational system itself that is creating most of the problems that we are still experiencing today.

State education is a huge monopoly. In business it is recognised that monopolies are bad for the country and strict controls are in place to prevent them being set up. Yet there have been no such controls in education. Ideas have been created at the top and the teachers have been expected to follow them. This system is an amazingly quick and effective way of promoting something. In no time at all the new ideas are passed on to the next level of advisers and teacher trainers, who then pass it on to the students and head teachers, who, in turn, make sure it is being taught by the teachers in their schools. The pressure to implement these ideas is so powerful that heads and teachers feel obliged to follow them, whether they want to or not. Of course, if these ideas were effective, then this system would be excellent for raising standards. Unfortunately the reality has been completely the opposite.

Time and again, over the years, I have felt like the little boy who sees that the Emperor is wearing no clothes. This feeling started when I was teaching in a school that used the look and say method, back in the late 1970s. There was always a group of children who did not do well. In an effort to help these children our head of department, Joan Dorr, changed the method of teaching to a synthetic phonics one. That meant that we would teach the children the main letter sounds of English, and how to use blending (for reading) and segmenting (for writing) to work out the words, before expecting them to do the harder task of reading books and writing independently. Immediately it was clear that this was a far superior method of teaching and the improvement was reflected on the standardised reading test, which was given to the children when they were 7 years old. The quotient had gone from an average of 102 to 110+ on the Youngs Reading Test. Most of the children who would have scored below average had jumped into the average. This improvement was so impressive that the advisors, the inspectors or anyone interested in raising the literacy level of our children, should have picked it up. Instead they were not interested because phonics had gone out of fashion. They refused to come into the school and look at what we had achieved. How could it be that the very people who were supposed to be improving education for our children were not interested in good results? This certainly told me that something was badly wrong with the system. I could see that all the people working above me, and not in the classroom, were following the latest new anti-phonics mantra and saying how wonderful it was. Yet they provided no scientific evidence whatsoever that these new ideas worked. It was almost unbelievable that something so damaging could become the method of teaching in virtually all our schools, just on the whim of a few charismatic people at the top. This was certainly a case of the Emperor’s new clothes. Unfortunately it has taken decades for the little boy’s voice to be heard at all.

In order to understand how to prevent future problems it is necessary to look in more detail at the events that brought about the most damaging phase in our educational history.

One of the first mistakes was to teach the children to memorise whole words by their shapes. Memorising words, which are just squiggles to young children, is not nearly as easy as the gurus, who set this idea in motion, would have us believe. By using another script, such as Arabic, you can see for yourself how difficult it is.

This will be demonstrated with PowerPoint: Arabic words on flash cards will be used. Also a demonstration of how we read and write words we have never seen before, and the two essential skills for reading, namely decoding and aural comprehension.

The new idea of whole word memorising for the initial teaching of reading really started to take a hold in schools after the Second World War. Phonics was still looked upon as important but the serious teaching was delayed and mainly used with the struggling seven-year-old children. Reading schemes were written to support the whole word start. These books introduced new words very gradually and repeated them frequently. This restricted and repetitious text meant that the stories tended to be a bit stilted and boring, which led to the belief that it was the books that were causing the children’s reading problems.

From here the whole language philosophy, known in the UK as the ‘real book approach’, started to take shape. The main charismatic gurus, Kenneth Goodman and Frank Smith, inspired the advisors, teacher trainers and inspectors into believing that many children failed to read because they did not want to do it. They were told that the children were put off reading by being given such dire and uninteresting stories. This led to the teachers being told that the children should NOT be asked to work out words by concentrating on the letters. They only need to inspire the children with a desire to read and provide exciting and humorous stories. The children would learn naturally, in the same way that they learn to speak. During this phase many new and exciting stories were written. They were often beautifully illustrated, as well. A considerable number of schools abandoned their reading schemes and bought the exciting stories for their children to read. The only problem was that the majority of the children could not read them.

Some children, however, did do well with this whole word method and interesting storybooks. So why was it that some could succeed while the others failed? The reason was that the successful children actually taught themselves to read and write because they had the natural attributes. The first attribute was a good visual memory, which enabled them, in the early stages, to memorise each word reasonably well. Their second attribute was a good ear for hearing the sounds in words. These children cracked the code themselves, even if they had had no phonics at all. They heard, for instance, the /s/ sound in words and saw that it was written with a single letter <s>. Then they might notice, when they heard a /sh/ sound at the front of the word ‘ship’ and one at the end of ‘fish’, that the /sh/ sound was written with two letters, an <s> and an <h>. Bit by bit they sorted it out. Naturally children from richer environments were more likely to do this because their parents read to them a lot, and told them about letters. They probably looked at alphabet books together. So, for these children, the letters were not such peculiar squiggles and this made words easier to memorise. Alternatively some of these parents might have taught the sounds of the letters and shown their children how to work the words out by blending the sounds. In which case the parents had taught their children how to read, which then enabled them to enjoy the new exciting reading books. The fact that some children could succeed made it look as though there was something wrong with the children who failed. This blaming of the child and their home background has masked the truth of the matter. The fault was in the method of teaching.

The next mistake was to ignore scientific testing. Standardised reading and spelling tests were available. These tests provide evidence of the standard being achieved by a child, class or nation. The gurus, who started the whole language philosophy, soon saw that their ideas did not reflect well on standardised testing and started another fashionable trend of ridiculing all testing. Soon the teacher trainers and advisors were following this trend and mocking anyone who thought that they could measure a child’s ability to read this way. In their view the personal judgement of the teacher was a much better way to measure how well the children were reading. This same attitude happened in medicine, over a hundred years ago, when the doctors made their own potions for their patients. They were certain there was nothing wrong with their potions. The reality was that they were fine for many patients but they also killed a few! This led to the government bringing in strict controls to stop this practice. Since then all drugs are tested by gold standard scientific procedures before allowing the patients to use them. Our children do not die when we fail to teach them to read but it does ruin their life chances and we should have used the best science to make sure that the methods used to teach them were the most effective. The power of the advisors was so strong that it became impossible for teachers to ignore the latest ideas that the advisors were so forcefully promoting. To make matters worse, as a means of increasing their power, the Local Education Advisors (LEA) started being involved in appointing head teachers. Naturally they chose teachers who were prepared to follow their philosophies. The system was impossible to fight against. Teachers had to toe the line. Many have told me that they carried on using phonics in their classrooms when no one was looking.

Susan Godsland

Post by Susan Godsland »

Part 2:

Only a few head teachers were confident enough to stand up to the advisors and carry on with what they thought was best for their children. This was particularly so if the standards being achieved were high or the school was in a rural area. It was mainly the city schools that were under the greatest pressure to conform to the whole language approach.

With no teaching of letter sounds, and no controlled reading schemes, the number of children failing was increasing all the time. Eventually Martin Turner, an educational psychologist, who had been using standardised reading tests to measure the children’s progress, exposed this dreadful state of affaires. In his book ‘Sponsored Reading Failure’ he blamed the latest methods of teaching. He was immediately suspended from his job. No wonder others have been fearful to speak out.

Having a method of teaching that was the exact opposite of what the children needed could only have happened in a monopoly or a dictatorship. There was no escape from it for the teachers or, in fact, the parents, apart from sending their children to a good private school. These schools kept teaching phonics and grammar. Failure to teach literacy well would have driven them out of business. However, our state education system had no such restraints. The money for their initiatives would come from us taxpayers. Huge sums were now needed because the new methods of teaching created far more children with reading and writing problems. There was great demand for smaller classes, special needs teachers, educational psychologists etc. to try and rectify the problems. Frequently more of the same teaching was used and, naturally, the same failure continued. It seems to have been a never ending spiral of wrong thinking and a lack of accountability, which successive governments have tried to address.

In the 1990s it was recognised that something must be done. The country’s need for a more literate workforce was essential. All political parties were aware of the problems but how do you solve it when all the experts, who advise the politicians, have been trained to think in the wrong direction. This was not the only problem. These advisors had embraced the whole language ideas with a blind faith, which was bordering on religious fervour, and were not willing to listen to others outside their cosy organisation. They certainly would not open their eyes and see that the Emperor was naked and that the little boy at the bottom had more idea of the truth than they did. Most advisors were good people who worked very hard. They, too, were a product of this faulty system. They believed the ideas coming from the top were the right ones. As they were not in the classroom they were never able to question or get a realistic understanding of the problems linked to teaching reading and writing.

Since then the tide has started to turn; even if, for people in the Reading Reform Foundation, it has been painfully slow. Let us look briefly at what has happened:

• The National Literacy Strategy (NLS) was brought in. The wrong phonics was chosen because the so-called experts did not have the knowledge of synthetic phonics. Blending was not even mentioned and much of the whole language philosophy was still there. At least their hearts were going in the right direction.
• The NLS was revised. This time blending was mentioned but as a last resort after the whole language searchlight strategies had been used, such as looking at the picture, and guessing from initial letter and context. Still too much failure.
• The Clackmannanshire Research showed the huge long-term gains that were achieved with synthetic phonics.
• An Inquiry into the Teaching of Reading was set up. Jim Rose was given the task of finding out if synthetic phonics was superior to the NLS phonics.
• Jim Rose concluded, in The Rose Report, that synthetic phonics was the most effective system.
• The NLS and the National Numeracy Strategy (NNS) came together under the umbrella of the Primary National Strategy (PNS). This organisation was given the task of promoting high-quality systematic phonics as defined in the Rose Review. The latest guidance was published this year as ‘Letters and Sounds’.
This time a synthetic phonics expert was consulted. Consequently
Phases 2-6 have provided better guidance for teaching children
how to read and write than ever before, which is good news.
However, once again the problem with advice from the top is that
there is pressure to use it, even though teachers may feel another
programme is better. This system of being expected to follow the
advice from above has been created over many decades. Although
it is now stated that heads and teachers are free to choose, the
message is not getting through strongly enough.

In the early 20th century there was very little illiteracy, which was a time when there was strong phonics and far less money spent on education. Since then fashion, and not scientific facts, have been promoted into state education and has unnecessarily failed thousands of children. The system of promoting ideas from the top, through an army of advisors, has been a disaster. It makes one wonder if having advisors does any good at all. Certainly their history is a very poor one. Perhaps, now that synthetic phonics is to be promoted by them, they can redress the damage they have done in the past. We shall see.

My hope for the future is that:

1. scientific evidence-based facts about the best ways of teaching reading, writing and maths should be passed on to the heads and teachers, and then they should be left alone to teach in the way that they think is best.
2. the SATs tests will be abolished. Instead I think the Ofsed inspectors should give standardised reading, spelling and maths tests to the Year 2 & Year 6 children. These would be quick and effective. This way there could be no teaching to the test. At the moment many heads are failing because they have been following the advice of the LEA advisors and using the wrong whole language ideas, such as the faulty searchlights strategies. They, too, are victims of the system.
Ofsted inspectors have similarly been caught up in the whole language ideas and frequently criticised teachers for not following them, without any good scientific evidence for their thinking. It really should not be the role of the inspectors to say how the teaching should be done or if a teacher is good or poor. That is the responsibility of the head, and if that head does not get satisfactory results then he or she should be quickly replaced. However, I think head teachers would be far more effective when there was no interference from higher up. Inspectors should only look at the standard being achieved and checking that the parents and children are happy with their school.
3. the KS1 curriculum will be reduced to allow room for the reading, writing and maths skills to be properly taught. Children going into KS2 unable to satisfactorily read or write will rarely catch up and do well in secondary school. Subjects such as history, science, geography, religious instruction and computer studies should not be compulsory in KS1. When all the children can read, write and have a good understanding of numbers then they can take full advantage of these important subjects.
4. the teacher training establishments are improved. Student teachers should be trained in evidence-based methods, such a synthetic phonics. They should also learn about our alphabetic code and how the sounds of the language relate to the symbols, as well as understanding the grammar of our language.
5. information on what constitutes good scientific research
becomes well known. At the moment there is far too
much emphasis on subjective views and not enough on
using standardised tests. The amount of improvement
the children have made is easy to find out with the use
of pre and post testing. Great care should be taken that
the teachers do not teach the words on the test because
that would invalidate the findings. Ideally, us teachers,
should not see the test at all.
6. discussion and sharing of ideas will be encouraged. At
the moment teachers feel they cannot go against the
wisdom from above and are fearful to open their mouths
and say what they have found out from their teaching.
This over-bearing from the top has stifled debate and
deprived the Education system of many good ideas that
actually work for ordinary teachers working with the

Anyone who has looked carefully at what has happened in the past cannot fail to recognise that it really is the system that has caused all the problems. At the moment there is the Early Years philosophy, which is just another fashionable idea. These educationalists believe that the children should learn through play, avoid being taught as a whole class and start reading and writing much later. Once again there is no strong scientific evidence that this is good for our children and yet teachers are being put under pressure to think this way. Where is the accountability in that? This system has to stop. There is now enough evidence that virtually all children can be taught to read. We must use science to measure the best ways and have zero tolerance of failure.