Dear Nadhim Zahawi, the Tories vowed to ‘eradicate illiteracy’ years ago. What went wrong? | Michael Rosen

The education secretary should know the phonics system has been around since 2011 and is ‘proven to work’

Welcome to your new job as education secretary. In your Conservative party conference speech you drew our attention to when you were at school. As this was your focus, I took a look at your wikipedia page to see where you got your education. It says two out of your three secondary schools were private ones. No one is responsible for the education their parents chose for them, but as you made a point of thanking your teachers, there will be some of us who might wish that all school students could get the same facilities as those offered within the private sector. I’ve come up with a phrase for bringing this about: “levelling up”. Please feel free to use it.

One big theme in your speech was “illiteracy”. To tell the truth, I thought your government had cracked this. In 2011, I was at the House of Commons for that year’s launch of the Summer Reading Challenge. We were lucky to have a speech from the then schools minister, Nick Gibb. He went straight to his favourite subject: phonics – or to be more precise, systematic synthetic phonics (SSP). He said that SSP would “eradicate illiteracy”.

He then went ahead and transformed nursery, reception, years 1 and 2 and remedial English lessons, working to his principle of “first, fast and only”. In other words, SSP became the sole diet for early years children when learning to decode. To confirm that all was going well with this – and to monitor how well teachers were teaching it – the government devised the phonics screening check, a test that asks children to say out loud words on a list, some of which are invented words with no meaning.

Though most officials are careful to describe this as “decoding” and not reading, I’ve noticed that Gibb himself has at times described this act of saying words out loud as reading, talking of “the tried-and-tested phonics method of teaching young children to read”.

Now, 10 years after Gibb’s words on this matter, you are saying that you’re going to tackle illiteracy. You’ll deal with children who are not “reading”!

A quick glance at who was in charge of this programme for the last 10 years right up until recently, reveals that it was Nick Gibb, the continuous hand on the tiller of eradicating illiteracy.

At some point, I think you’ll have to clear up for us exactly what your government has done, eradicated illiteracy, or not?

Going all the way back to 2005, your former prime minister David Cameron made a big deal out of this: “The biggest problem facing education today is the fact that one in five 11-year-olds leaves primary school unable to read properly,” he said. The phrase he used later, in 2011, and which others have used since, is that your party would demand that schools would put in place “the method that’s proven to work”.

Seeming to echo this, you said in your speech: “We will relentlessly focus on what works.” This has an earthy, robust feel about it, suggesting you have years of research to back you up. My first problem with this is that if you’re setting about tackling illiteracy now, following 10 years of Nick Gibb’s methods, is it really what’s “proven to work”?

Second, people who study reading tests all across the English-speaking world – such as the distinguished linguist Prof Stephen Krashen – tell me that so far they have found evidence that first, fast and only phonics systems merely improve children’s ability to say out loud words on a list – which I hope we are agreed is not the same as “reading”.

My third problem comes if we refer to another test that your government is very keen on: the key stage 2 English reading test (for 11-year-olds). Here children are asked to show they can retrieve information from a passage of writing; that they can “infer” why something has happened in the passage; and that they can reproduce the order or chronology of the passage. (As an aside, I’ll say that my view is that reading involves many more processes than retrieval, inference and chronology, but let’s agree that the test is a measure of a certain amount of “comprehension”.)

You’ll know by now that children score much higher on the year 1 tests than the year 6 tests. These are of course very different ways of measuring what children can do, testing different things, so why should they match up? No reason why they should – except that all who trumpeted the introduction of first, fast and only systematic, synthetic phonics claimed it would eradicate illiteracy. In other words, every child would be able to “read” and not simply “decode”. There would be no illiteracy.

I would be the last person to suggest that all those who do not reach the expected level at the age of 10 or 11 are “illiterate”. That’s why I’m curious as to why you used the word. Are you really talking about students who have been in school in England since 2011? There are of course some children who came late into the system but everyone else has been taught according to the Nick Gibb principles. Many parents will be wondering what’s gone wrong with the system that your government said 10 years ago is “proven to work”.

Yours, Michael Rosen


Michael Rosen

The GuardianTramp

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