Thursday 5 January 2012

The Politics of Literacy

I refrained from putting my previous post into too much of a political framework in case it obscured the kernel of what the research is saying - namely that a home full of books, independent of the level of education, profession or class of the parent(s) will enable the child(ren) in that home get 3 years more schooling. And this applies in countries all over the world.

As I asked in the previous post, why aren't politicians falling on this as if it was manna?

Let's see if we can unpick some of this. Various people, me included, have actually spent time face to face with the guys at the top of the Education ministry. One of the big lies spread about Education ministers the world over is that education is in the grip of liberals and lefties and no matter what 'reforms' they try to bring in, they find themselves being obstructed. Michael Gove in his most recent speech tries the same tack portraying himself as some kind of embattled pioneer in danger of being strangled by the all-powerful conspiracy of local authorities (!), teaching unions and an amorphous lefty 'them'. As if. These education Secretaries of State and Ministers have had an almost free run over the organisation of schools - (that should be 're-organisation' really) - the content of the curriculum, teacher-training arrangements and even pedagogic methods. Since 1988, there has hardly been a year in which the Ministry in England (I do have to keep saying 'England' just to remind us all that every time Michael Gove and others open their mouths about all this, puffing themselves up as cocks of the midden, they are in reality only talking to the statelet of England) has not brought in a change, a 'reform', a re-organisation, an 'initiative'. Even now, in spite of his embattled rhetoric, Michael Gove is the minister responsible for the biggest shake-up in the organisation of schooling since 1944. I would love to think that some kind of all-powerful coalition was able to resist the progress towards a more fragmented, more unequal system. That's not to say that combinations of schools and parents (perhaps someone will tell me, Local Authorities too, but not in areas I've lived and worked in) have made collective decisions to stay fully accountable to local democratically elected councils rather than to millionaires, corporations and consortia.

So, on the matter of power, in spite of what ministers may say, they rule. And a long arm down from the ministry, policed by the inspectorate, regulated by the ministerial obsessive compulsive disorder of testing, backed sometimes/often (how often?) uncritically by nervous headteachers looking over their shoulders at league tables ensures obedience.  Of course, England now presents a very interesting picture of right-wing libertarianism. Think Dr Strangelove, who you'll remember couldn't control the arm that wanted to do a 'Sieg Heil' in places where he or it shouldn't. That's right wing libertarianism. It says, 'Go off my little darlings and be free, do what you want, you know best, you're the professionals, you're the teachers...' but there is a hard, authoritarian reflex which wants to determine what is done in schools, how it is to be done, how schools should be run - and most importantly, wants to ensure that in localities - where education happens to the 'cohort' - becomes secretly stratified and segregated. Under the name of choice and freedom, schools under new dispensations ('free', 'specialist' etc) will ensure the excluded are excluded, the disadvantaged remain so. Listen to Michael Gove trotting out the false comparison between the old Hackney Downs Comprehensive School and Mossbourne Academy built on its site. The comp was completely non-selective and was being deliberately run down by the old local authority which was corrupt, incompetent and desperate to offload the whole secondary cohort on to neighbouring boroughs, and sell off the secondary school sites to developers. Mossbourne had millions pumped into it, a brand new staff imported with the result that it has become what is in effect a selective school. This is done simply by virtue of it becoming 'first choice' for many more parents. Gove and everyone else who fall upon the stats of Hackney Downs versus Mossbourne commit the classic error of false stats analysis: not comparing like with like. This is how power is exercised from the ministry, even as it pretends it isn't and can't! This is how libertarianism does a Dr Strangelove.

Talk about literacy has its long, long history but takes place in this context of school re-organisation. An agenda is taking shape: where the ministry retains direct or indirect control over early years education, teaching to read will be in the form of Synthetic Phonics. They will do all they can to make sure that this is the only method used and that's why they are introducing a test for 6 year olds which will test their 'phonic awareness'. Where a child fails this test, then he or she will be injected with more phonics. This is Strangelove at work again. No one in the world, not even the Synthetic Phonics people themselves believe that you can learn to read using only phonic methods! Around 25% of the words in their phonic programmes  are not taught phonically! They are taught by a method which used to be known as 'look and say' or 'whole word recognition'. They tell children these are 'tricky words' - words like 'was' and 'come' that can't be deciphered in the same way as words like 'tip' and 'sit'. So in the midst of the 'systematic' use of phonic methods is something completely non-systematic, or at least inconsistent - namely, 'hey kids - look at that word it!'

No matter, say the pragmatists and authoritarians - if it works, it works. Well, yes and no. The problems that are emerging here are:
Are children understanding what they're reading this way?
Are children reared on maxed out phonics able to switch to texts (ie real books) that aren't in phonics' schemes?
Are children reared on pure phonics better readers than those who learned to read by other methods when they're tested five years down the line?
Do children reared on pure phonics become avid, active, self-supporting readers by virtue of phonics alone?
Does anyone care about this so long as the children score high in their 'reading' tests?

These questions are being looked at by researchers grouped around the United Kingdom Literacy Association (UKLA) and already a much more complex picture is emerging than is being portrayed or countenanced by the ministry. Research however, is incredibly difficult in this area because it has to be longterm, it's very difficult to compare like with like over longterm (changing cohorts of children, changing teachers, changing schools) and it's almost impossible to keep 'all the variables' in children's lives constant while you're testing for the one variable: method of teaching to read. In other words, it becomes incredibly difficult to discern what precisely is making the difference.

Again, there is the mysterious fact that must always be ignored by those introducing the synthetic phonic regime - many children have for centuries learned how to read by other methods and indeed by a combination of methods. If that's the case, why bring in a method that is applied to all children all the time? Strangelove again.

This particular knot of problems gives rise to some absurdities. A headteacher with a national reputation for turning round a failing school presents in public one of the major planks on which the success of his children is based: synthetic phonics. As he does his presentation he reveals that in his school, right from the off, the children are immersed in 'whole texts' and 'real books', read to them, read by them, enacted by them, with a programme of visiting writers and outreach into the homes. I make the observation that this is part of how the children are learning to read. He becomes very cross and shakes his head.

Again, in the recent tests, a school came out 'top'. Journalists rushed to the school to interview the headteacher. Evan Davies quizzed her on the Today programme: do you do synthetic phonics? he asked. 'Yes,' she said. However, she was keen to point out that in the school they did a lot of other things: they do a lot of work on bilingualism where the children share their 'home languages' in the school environment; they have a system of parent representatives whose job is to explore ways in which books and reading are a top priority in people's homes, they emphasise reading of books in and out of school all the time.

So, is it synthetic phonics doing the trick? Or all this other stuff? Or both? Unlike the previous head, the SATs success head (if I may call her that), was quite clear. It was the school's culture in relation to language and books, of which synthetic phonics was one part, that did the trick.

Again, why aren't the right wing libertarians (and, for that matter the craven New Labour crowd) not making tracks to this school and trumpeting the virtues of this method? Because Strangelove wouldn't like it. Apart from the synthetic phonics bit, it all sounds woolly and multi-cultural, doesn't it? It all sounds humanistic and puts parents at the heart of literacy.

What? Literacy is something to do with what parents can do? And not just simply 'hearing children read'? But they can be active planners and participants in the process of building a whole school reading community? And the word 'literacy' doesn't have to be confined to reading scheme cards, sheets and 'readers', doesn't have to be confined to the deciphering of standard English writing? It can encompass everyone's 'literacy' (and 'oracy' ie how they talk) and if you value all these literacies and oracies you respect  people and if you respect people you stand a chance of building networks of children,parents,carers, teachers who co-operate in order to learn.

And how odd, eh, that in Michael Gove's speech about academies and freedom and those who would obstruct things, he wasn't trumpeting the triumph of the 'best SATs' school and,more importantly, trumpeting the whole language, diverse language, whole community methods being used - the very point being made by the research I've quoted in my previous post. 3 years more schooling, Mr Gove...All you would need to do is ask of schools to prepare policies of their own to find ways of co-operating with parents and libraries to get as many books as possible into homes.

And why not? Why won't ministers do it?

Because of Strangelove's arm.  And Strangelove's arm tells them that what schools, teachers and children need is control and containment. Sitting about browsing through books, talking about language, feelings and ideas doesn't sound tough, doesn't sound as if you're 'getting children down to it', doesn't sound like 'discipline'.

So we have universal provision of synthetic phonics, but we don't have universal provision of the reading of whole books. That's where we are.