Not the Trojan Horse: three other stories that made the educational news this week

Janet Downs's picture
More dodgy data from the DfE

The Department for Education has named the best and the worst towns for GCSE results in 2013, the Telegraph claimed. But some “towns” were local authorities, some were “district council areas” and some were unfathomable.

Take the City of London. This was supposedly one of the best areas with 81% of pupils gaining 5 GCSEs A*-C including maths and English. But DfE school performance tables showed the City of London had no state secondary schools. The City of London Corporation, however, says it’s got three: The City Academy Hackney, City of London Academy Islington and City of London Academy Southwark. The first didn’t enter pupils for GCSE in 2013. 60% of pupils in the Islington academy and 66% in Southwark reached the benchmark. That’s an average of 63%. 63% is not 81%.

Some areas had too few schools to come to a meaningful conclusion. Kingston-Upon-Hull had one school entering pupils for GCSE in 2013 as did the Isles of Scilly where only 21 pupils sat GCSEs. Forest Heath district had two schools. Horsham, Havant and Hastings only had three.

It’s unreliable to base conclusions about how well areas perform on such small samples of schools


A study, claiming to “vindicate” the teaching of synthetic phonics as the only method of teaching reading, was widely publicised. But the Times (16 June, behind paywall) said its significance was limited by the small scale of the study. Ben Goldacre put it more succinctly in a tweet:

@bengoldacre "Teachers. If a non-randomised study of 30 kids in one class counts as significant evidence, your sector is broken."

The author of the report, Dr Marlynne Grant, is not disinterested. She’s a member of the Reading Reform Foundation which promotes phonics. Her phonics programme, Sound Discovery, is sold by Pearson and she’s a director of Synthetic Phonics Ltd. Her report recommends the purchase of "government-approved" phonics materials: Sound Discovery is on the DfE's "Choose a Phonics Programme" list although it says inclusion isn't endorsement.

The recently published NFER evaluation of the phonics screening check received less attention. It found 60% of teachers of reading claimed to teach synthetic phonics “first and fast”. However, NFER found teachers’ responses about the use of other methods contradicted this. NFER concluded that teachers regarded phonics as an important part, but not the only part, of teaching children to read.

Accelerated Christian Education

25 Independent Christian schools in England use Accelerated Christian Education, says the Mail. The programme, described in TES two years ago, uses textbooks which say the sun was created “a few thousand years ago”, describes evolution as an “indefensible theory” and says homosexuality is a “learned behaviour”.

Brenda Lewis, head of the ACE King of Kings School, Manchester, said the textbooks were only a “very small part of a very large curriculum” and they acted as a “springboard”.

But the school’s prospectus seems to contradict this: "Accelerated Christian Education, an individualised Christian learning programme, forms the body of the curriculum". It is delivered through PACE (Package of Accelerated Christian Education) modules contained in workbooks which pupils complete at their own pace.

Science level One of this curriculum requires children to discover “God’s wisdom as he learns about God creating Earth…” The Government has just banned the teaching of creationism as a valid scientific theory in all English state schools. Perhaps this prohibition should extend to independent schools.
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Phil Taylor's picture
Fri, 20/06/2014 - 15:59

We could perhaps see Accelerated Christian Education as extremist, couldn't we?

What are the government doing about it? Oh....nothing.

Patrick Hadley's picture
Fri, 20/06/2014 - 20:42

The Telegraph gave big coverage to phoney phonics research story without any quibble about it being based on just one class, and was written by someone with a commercial interest in phonics.

This is how they began their story: "Children taught to read using traditional methods are more than two years ahead of their peers, figures show, despite fears large numbers of schools shun the approach in favour of more “progressive” teaching. Research shows that phonics can boost children’s reading age by an average of 28 months by the time they turn seven."

Thanks for the link to the NFER research on the phonics. What I found interesting was this conclusion "Thus attainment in reading and writing more broadly appears unaffected
by the school’s enthusiasm, or not, for systematic synthetic phonics and the check,
and by their approach to the teaching of phonics. " To me that seems pretty clear that phonics is not the panacea that it is claimed to be.

Do the "phonics fanatics" think that teachers should continue using "phonics and only phonics" with a child who does badly in the Year 1 test? Wouldn't that be evidence that another after two years of only phonics it is time for another approach?

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 21/06/2014 - 08:00

Patrick - there is a vocal pro synthetic phonics group (you could call them phonics phundamentlists) who lobby in favour of synthetic phonics "first, fast and foremost". They've managed to persuade politicians (particularly ex-schools minister Nick Gibb) that this approach should be imposed on schools.

Some of the lobby have a financial interest in producing phonics materials (see my thread "Phonics: the sounds that letters make. Kerching!" here).

That's not to say phonics isn't important but, as NFER found, the majority of teachers combine them with other methods. This confirms earlier research which suggested the effect of systematic teaching of phonics (not necessarily synthetic phonics) is augmented by using other methods. But when I pointed this out here in September 2012 I was flamed by pro-synthetic phonics enthusiasts.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 21/06/2014 - 15:43

Patrick - I've just found the Telegraph article. It was written by ex-schools minister Nick Gibb, poster boy for the synthetic phonics movement. He cites Dr Grant's research approvingly (he never did have a grasp on what constitutes reliable data).

As usual, Gibb attacks "progressive" methods. I'm not sure what he means by "progressive" - it's probably anything to do with allowing children to discuss things (he dismisses that as "chat") or doing something heretical like putting the child at the centre of education.

Rather late in the day, I know, but I've added two comments under Gibb's article (ex-secondary modern teacher).

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 21/06/2014 - 13:10

I did not realise that phonics is so divided into cults. Where there are cults there are always cult leaders. The main divide is between 'analytic' and 'synthetic' phonics. This TES article explains the difference.

In my ignorance, not understanding this difference, I thought that 'phonics' was just a matter of recognising the common letter patterns that represent sounds in the English language. This being the case it seemed to me that 'phonics' rooted in the reading of simple books was a sensible dimension to the teaching of reading. Silly me!

Synthetic phonics goes much further than this. Children are not allowed near a book until they have learned by heart, through repetition, the very large number of letter combination/sound relationships in the English language. The prescribed teaching methods are profoundly behaviourist in nature relying on rapid fire questioning and chanting designed to burn the patterns into the mind so that they can be instantly, subconsciously regurgitated . There appears to me to be a clear split between the sounds that patterns of letters make when 'synthesised' into words and the meanings that the words convey. Synthetic phonics does not seem concerned with the latter.

There is no doubt in my mind that behaviourist approaches do not lead to deep learning in older children (Piaget, Vygotsky, Kahneman etc) but could they have role to play in the teaching of infants? This must be the case with some forms of infant training (toilet training, washing, classroom compliance etc) but it seems to me that as children develop then the role of behaviourist rote learning should diminish.

Apparently the research suggests that pure, authoritarian, instruction-based, behaviourist synthetic phonics produces early gains in reading ability compared to the less structured approaches described in the TES article. However for me the question is, do these early gains stick, and are there a perverse developmental downsides? Are the gains achieved through synthetic phonics still there at the end of KS2?

I am not claiming to have any knowledge or expertise in early years teaching, so I don't know the answer to the question. However I don't like cults and I think some scepticism might be wise. I can't see why different approaches can't be going on in parallel, but then cults are never like that are they?

Phil Taylor's picture
Sat, 21/06/2014 - 14:58

Roger, I think you're right. It's definitely a cult and there is no one way to teach anything.

I remember reading an amusing account by John Holt of how we would teach kids to speak if we followed the methods commonly used to teach reading. Many years later I tried to describe this in a book to which I contributed:

'Just imagine how things would turn out if kids were taught to speak in a properly structured way, forgetting any nonsense about 'real conversations'. No doubt we would start them off, when we thought they were ready, with 'basic essential sounds', move them on to short single words (after recording their progress on the official pro forma), and only allow them to move on to two-word phrases when they had proved that they had 'mastered the basics' (by taking the compulsory test). This process would not stop some people learning somehow to speak articulately (some kids, after all, teach themselves to read) but most folks would probably end up speaking like George W. Bush or John Prescott.'

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 27/06/2014 - 15:37

TES has an open letter asking for the Phonics screening test to be abolished. The writers claim it is flawed, discourages able readers and tells teachers nothing they couldn't discover by asking pupils to read aloud from an appropriate text.

Phil Taylor's picture
Fri, 27/06/2014 - 15:49

'Further clear evidence is emerging for recent government-funded evaluations that many schools are practising for the check with nonsense-word decoding exercises.' (quote from the letter)

The test is encouraging teachers to get children reading and speaking nonsense.

There's no comment that would really do justice to this absurdity.

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