‘Evidence-based’ teaching is based only on evidence approved by schools minister Nick Gibb

Janet Downs's picture

Schools minister Nick Gibb claims to be swayed only by evidence.   He cited two teaching methods which he says were ‘evidence-based’ in the Commons on 19 December: systematic synthetic phonics and maths mastery.  He wants all English schools to adopt these approaches.

But the evidence doesn’t just support synthetic phonics but ANY method of teaching phonics provided it is presented in a planned and systematic manner.  Evidence summarised in the Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit, which is praised by Gibb as a reliable source, makes no distinction between different types of phonics instruction.  The Toolkit recognises that phonics as an overall method ‘can be an important component in the development of early reading skills’ but vocabulary development, comprehension and spelling were equally important.   Gibb’s high-profile support of just one method of phonics teaching underplays the importance of the development of these important skills. 

The Department for Education offered a matched-funding scheme for systematic phonics materials during the Coalition years.  This has proved very profitable for firms providing these including one, Read, Write Inc, whose director, Ruth Miskin, was an adviser to the DfE on the primary curriculum.   Her involvement raised questions of conflict of interest.

Gibb is also a fan of maths mastery.   The EEF Toolkit found ‘mastery learning is a learning strategy with good potential, particularly for low attaining students’ which could lead to five months progress in a school year compared with ‘traditional’ methods.   The EEF warned however, that studies into maths mastery showed results tended to cluster at two points: ‘little or no impact’ or ‘impact of up to six months’ gain’.  In other words, mastery could be very effective or it could have no effect. 

Analysis of the evidence by the Institute of Education on behalf of the EEF found pupils in schools using maths mastery made the equivalent of ‘approximately two months’ additional progress’.  It wasn’t possible to conclude whether this small progress would not have occurred by chance, the analysists wrote.

Gibb remains obstinately stuck to maths mastery and synthetic phonics.   But the evidence suggests there are other, equally effective, strategies.  His constant promotion of these two methods suggests he is unwilling to consider any other methods which might jolt him from his stubborn support.  This isn’t following the evidence, it’s following the prejudice.  Worse, he's using his dogged adherence to particular methods to impose his will on English schools.

FOOTNOTE   Despite his insistence that he always looks at the evidence, Nick Gibb ‘inadvertently’ cited flawed data in the Commons in July.  The statistics relating to PISA international test results for the UK in the year 2000 have been known to have been faulty for years.  This doesn’t seem to have made much impact on our schools minister.



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Emma Bishton's picture
Wed, 21/12/2016 - 20:30

Gibb: a believer in policy-based evidence. 

Debbie Hepplewhite's picture
Thu, 22/12/2016 - 01:12

For any doubts about the evidence for systematic synthetic phonics, please visit the site of the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction at www.iferi.org . There is a body of international research to support efficacy for systematic synthetic phonics far beyond the research conducted or summarised by the Educational Endowment Foundation. Thank goodness Nick Gibb has heeded the international evidence - and maybe he actually has far too much faith in the Education Endowment Foundation?

The systematic synthetic phonics teaching principles include teaching that the alphabetic code is 'reversible' and spelling is included in the teaching from the outset of a formally planned SSP programme.

Also consider that a good SSP programme includes vocabulary enrichment and language comprehension as part of the phonics teaching and learning cycle which is not what your piece implies.

Further, the webpage of the EEF that is dedicated to describing 'phonics' is fundamentally flawed when it suggests that children older than 10 who have not succeeded with phonics approaches previously may need 'something different'. This is not the case and may indicate that the phonics teaching has not, to date, been good enough (in various possible ways) for it to have taught the older child well enough. We have schools in England with varying results in similar circumstances which show that not all teaching is effective - plus many teachers still teach multi-cueing reading strategies which is worrying when the research shows that this can lead to very poor reading behaviours.

With regard to Ruth Miskin, why would the government not call upon someone who has had extraordinary success with teaching literacy as a headteacher for many years, and who has gone on to become a literacy specialist and she has developed material and guidance that has enabled many other schools to succeed? She has achieved in literacy what many have failed to achieve and thank goodness this knowledge and understanding has been shared for the overall good.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 22/12/2016 - 09:49

Debbi - thanks to your link to IFERI.  I read its summary of research into reading.  This confirmed what I have found - the systematic teaching of phonics is an efficient way of teaching reading.  But the research does not specify that this should be synthetic phonics.  The word 'synthetic' did not appear in the research summary.  The word 'systematic', on the other hand, appeared seven times.

As I said, this research chimes with other international research.  There's no significant different between different methods of teaching phonics as long as the method is approached systematically and, as you rightly say, in a programme which includes spelling, vocabulary and comprehension.  

This raises the question why Nick Gibb emphasises just one type of teaching phonics: synthetic.  An All-Parliamentary Committee expressed concern about this as long ago as 2011 when it complained that the matched funding scheme pushed schools towards a small range of products by offering finacial incentives.    It should be up to schools to decide which method of teaching phonics they use and whether they combine this with other methods.   It appears schools are doing just that: a DfE commissioned report 2014 found a majority of schools were indeed combining phonics with other methods.

You say the EEF summary of phonics is 'fundamentally flawed' because it contains a remark that teaching phonics to children over 10 'may be less successful' than other approaches.  This appears to be enough to invalidate the entire paper and the EEF itself.  However, a separate EEF evaluation of Fresh Start, a phonics-based intervention aimed at older, struggling readers and developed by Ruth Miskin's Read, Write Inc, was positive.   If you think the EEF is overrated, then surely this evaluation can also be dismissed.

Debbie Hepplewhite's picture
Thu, 22/12/2016 - 12:22

Sadly, it is probably the fact that teachers are mixing systematic synthetic phonics with multi-cueing guessing strategies, as indicated by the DfE commissioned report which is precisely what will continue to damage the reading potential of at least some children.

The word 'synthetic' in the context of phonics just means the process of sounding out and blending printed words to discern a spoken word. The 'systematic synthetic phonics teaching principles' includes both the teaching of reading and spelling - but they preclude the guessing of printed words from multi-cueing which is still prevalent in infant practice and beyond.

These issues of informed practice are the result of many decades of international research - summaries which are much bigger and more long-standing than any studies of the Education Endowment Foundation.

Teachers deserve much better information than can be gleaned only from the Education Endowment Foundation studies to date.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 22/12/2016 - 16:43

Debbie- and teachers deserve better than to be constantly told the international evidence supports systematic SYNTHETIC phonics when the evidence actually supports ANY method of teaching phonics as long as it is planned and delivered systematically.   I cited much of this international international evidence in my previous comment and several times on this site.  Even the summary of evidence you provided didn't mention 'synthetic' but did mention 'systematic' seven times.  It is quite clear: ANY phonics method is effective as long as (sorry to be repetitive) it is systematic.  It is, therefore, worrying that a schools minister promotes one particular method - synthetic - when the international evidence shows it's as effective as other methods of teaching phonics as long as (sorry) it's delivered systematically.  This is especially true when the minister claims his pronouncements are 'evidence-based'.    

Pat Stone's picture
Fri, 23/12/2016 - 13:12

"Sadly, it is probably the fact that teachers are mixing systematic synthetic phonics with multi-cueing guessing strategies, as indicated by the DfE commissioned report .."
In which DfE report(s) is the word 'guessing' used, please?
'Probably'? You want the whole country to be forced to act on a 'probably?'
You insinuate to Mr Gibb and others that teachers plonk books in front of children and tell them to guess what the words say.
This is absolutely not what happens at all.
This constant insinuation dressed up as 'evidence' is detrimental to teachers and children and no matter how many edicts Mr Gibb imposes, based on your 'advice', intelligent teachers will take absolutely no notice.

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