[Education For Tomorrow: No 98, 2008]

Teaching: the fourth factor
more of statin’ the bleedin’ obvious

There was plenty of meat in Bill Greenshields" article in EFT 95, “Class and education, statin’ the bleedin’ obvious". I would not for a moment want to argue with its main thrust, that “the major determinant of educational achievement is the social class background of pupils." The research is there to prove it. Even the government acknowledges this in its own strategy document, Putting People at the Heart of Public Services 2004, quoted by Bill, “Four factors are key to this depressing pattern. First the simple fact of growing up in poverty, with the restrictions it places on housing, diet and lifestyle. Second, family factors — critically parental interest and support, which is itself driven by parental experience of education. Third, neighbourhood factors. The fourth is the quality of schooling."

“The first three require long-term change in social and economic life. But the great power of schooling is that it is in our power to change it now and change it for the better."

Quite rightly, Bill takes the government to task and asks, “If the first three require long-term change in social and economic life what action has been taken?" Rowntree and other research show that where New Labour and previous governments are concerned, “fine words butter no parsnips." The situation with regard to children living in poverty has worsened and teachers do indeed need to be at the forefront of campaigning for this situation to change.

But what of the fourth factor, that of the quality of schooling, that of teaching? Well, this is where I part company with Bill, as he glosses over this and seems hopelessly fatalistic. He appears to be firmly in the Jesuit camp with its maxim, “Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man." At least, that’s the conclusion I drew from his quoting of research from University College London, “it is possible to combine social-economic classification of the household with the child’s overall developmental score at age 22 months to accurately predict educational qualifications at the age of 26 years."

So, it is useless teachers trying to do anything significant about the attainment of working class children because their poverty means a fixed outcome. They are doomed to failure. Campaign to change society by all means, but do not for a minute think that as teachers in your schools you can make a real difference in the meantime.

To those who try, Bill says, “their commitment and work is a very fine thing, but despite generations of such teachers, the problems remain."

Quality of schooling
Poverty remains, but many of the problems within schools stem not from poverty but from the inability of teachers to teach reading skills effectively.

Let me be specific. I have taught all my working life in the East End. I started out in secondary as a history teacher. I loved teaching my subject, but couldn’t understand why lots of the children couldn’t write anything much. Later, I went into primary teaching, at the height of the “Real Books" era and discovered that phonics was a dirty word among the powers that be, teachers were told not to teach children to sound out words but encourage them to guess, and memorise their way through books.

This was, and is, utter madness. “Whole Language" and its devotees have wreaked havoc within the education system and crippled the lives of hundreds of thousands of children and adults every bit as much as poverty.

Faulty teaching methods
The waste of human potential due to poverty is there for all to see. But hundreds of thousands of adults in this country failed to learn to read due to faulty teaching methodology, thus adding to their already existing problems.

Channel 4’s recent series Can’t Read, Can’t Write, showed exactly how devastating it is to be an adult who can’t read in today’s society. Phil Beadle, a secondary English teacher who has finally come to understand that, “it’s the teaching methodology that counts", was able to get some of these adults reading in a number of weeks. He would be the first to admit he’s a beginner in this area, but through using a synthetic phonics approach, he changed those individuals lives completely.

Nip back to factor two above, “parental interest and support, which itself is driven by parental experience of education." That a 54-year-old grandmother who was unable to go to the local shops by herself because she couldn’t read labels such as HAM and couldn’t read to her grandchildren, could by the end of a short period of synthetic phonics teaching, do her own shopping, and read to her grandchildren, shows that teaching does make a significant and lasting impact on people’s lives, and those of their families.

Multiply that grandmother hundreds of thousands of times. Go into our prison system and look at all the young people who got into crime, yes, due to poverty, but hugely exacerbated by the fact that they cannot read and write. When they are given teaching, using the right teaching methodology, they learn. One youngster was quoted as saying to his tutor, “Why the f***ing hell did no-one tell me this stuff before?"

Bill is right, despite all the spoutings from the government, they need to keep a pool of unskilled labour to stack the shelves and sweep the streets. They only need to act if this pool looks like becoming too big, thus creating a financial drag on other departments.

This was most likely what was behind its promotion of the original Literacy and Numeracy strategies. Raise the bar a little, but don’t worry about the very bottom lot.

But teachers do not have to go along with this, to have low expectations, to believe that the bottom lot are unteachable, unreachable, due to poverty, due to their parents, due to their “special needs."

Well my primary school has been following an exclusively synthetic phonics approach to the teaching of reading for about two-and-a-half years now. Its clientele are entirely working class, the majority with English as a second language, many refugees, many economic migrants, many with pronounced special needs such as autism and cerebral palsy (our local authority being militantly “inclusive!"). Our free school meal indicators rank us as being in one of the highest areas of deprivation in the country.

For what they’re worth, our SATs test results are the best we’ve ever had, exceeding national levels in some instances. The only children in our school who cannot yet read are those who have only just arrived from abroad, or those who have transferred to us from another school where they have not been correctly taught. And they will learn once we teach them.

In the past, we sent many children up to local secondary schools as non-readers or weak, struggling readers. This now does not happen. We demonstrate that, as our children have not changed, only our teaching methods, it is possible, as a profession to teach practically every child to read.

Cause for celebration
This is a cause for celebration, yet some dismiss it as irrelevant to the more important task of changing society. Some teachers oppose synthetic phonics simply because the government has mandated it!

At NUT Conference it was announced that the union is to produce its own guidance for members on the teaching of reading. They would do well to look at that produced by their counterparts in the American Federation of Teachers, before following the lead of some anti-phonics ranters within their own ranks!

Phil Beadle, in the programme mentioned above stated that teaching those individuals to read was the most rewarding thing he has ever done in teaching. This, from a winner of one of the government’s Teacher of the Year awards, is pretty revealing. He is a very angry man, because he knows that the teaching profession is letting down countless numbers of children. He knows that he was never trained how to help children who couldn’t read in secondary school. Just give them a word puzzle and sit them in the corner. Send them off to the special needs rooms to fill in more word puzzles. Send them to the restart room or sin bin when they kick off. Oh, and give them a word puzzle. Not my job to teach them how to read, that’s what primaries are for. This used to be the same attitude in primaries where junior teachers were concerned. If they haven’t learned in the infants they must be special needs or its their parents fault. Where does the buck stop?

Where does the buck stop?
Where it should stop is with the teacher training institutions who are to a man Whole Language advocates, currently politicising play in early years so that no early years teacher can feel free to teach for fear of being accused of being too formal, and is expected to follow children round with post-it notes logging each time they spontaneously meet one of the 119 or so criteria in the new Early Years curriculum document. But that’s a whole other article.

If teachers have not been told the truth and not properly trained, despite there being research all pointing in one obvious direction where the teaching of literacy is concerned, surely we on the Left who campaign so vigorously for universal literacy in Bolivia should take up the cudgels on their behalf in Britain?

Who else is going to speak up for teachers getting the knowledge and training they deserve? Who else is going to campaign for universal literacy for the poor in this country?

The teacher unions should be offering their members continuing profession development (CPD) on the teaching of reading and the role of synthetic phonics. At the moment, for instance, the NUT offers absolutely nothing on reading in CPD. I would do training on synthetic phonics gratis, if it meant getting the word out to members, and help with guidance documents.

I bought a book for a girl at my school, who is the first in her family to be able to read, for her to have something to read in the holidays and to show her how proud I was of her. Her mother said, “Thank God we’ve got one clever one in the family." It has nothing to do with being clever, and everything to do with getting the teaching right.

Responsibility of the Left
To me, it all boils down to this. We, on the Left, have a responsibility to campaign for the teaching profession to be properly trained so they can teach every child to read, at the same time as working to change how society is ordered!

The overlooked fourth factor has a vital part to play in the struggle for social progress. If you are not literate you do not have access to ideas for change. Or are we saying change is something that must be done on their behalf and that the poor must remain as victims to be done to, not participating?

Let the revolution in teacher training begin. We have nothing to lose but illiteracy, and everything to win.

Jo Shadwell

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