Back to Basics?

The Telegraph

There is much debate about education in the United Kingdom, some are now suggesting a return to the basics and treating education policy in the same way we treat health policy. Unfortunate our teacher unions think they are the sole arbiter of anything remotely connected with education. Perhaps there is some merit in returning to the “old ways”, they at least were tried and tested:

…we can all admit that education in this country can be improved. The question is: how?

Going “back to basics” might be the answer, of course. Perhaps rote learning of times tables, tried and tested for generations, is the best way to make children fluent in the use of number. But that is a hypothesis; an empirical, testable claim, and we should do our best to test that claim.

In his important new book The Geek Manifesto, The Times’s former science editor Mark Henderson argues that we should hold education policy to the same stringent standards as we do health. “It is understood and accepted by British politicians of all parties that providing universal access to first-class medical care and providing excellent state schools that offer opportunity to all are among the core functions of government,” he says. “Yet when it comes to evidence, these two central policy concerns are held to entirely different standards.”

New drugs, and new healthcare interventions in general (let’s leave aside NHS reforms for the moment), are tested rigorously using the best available methods, usually a randomised controlled trial (RCT). By contrast education policy is haphazardly built, based on little or no good evidence, constructed from half-remembered traditions, ossified dogma and evanescent fads.

Henderson points to the use of “phonics”, a novel method of teaching literacy, as a point where a large change was brought in on the basis of little evidence – and, worse, an opportunity to glean that evidence was squandered. Early excitement led to it being brought in widely across the country, when it should have been rolled out gradually in randomly allocated educational authorities. Then it would be possible to compare the literacy levels between areas, and see whether there really is a benefit to phonics. Instead, it got brought in wholesale, and we know nothing more than we did before about what actually works.


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  • Education in the west, since it became part of the Marxist political plan, is a lost cause.

    The only way to fix it is to burn down every building, fire every teacher, sack every bureaucrat, and start all over again.

    Without any input from the cultural Marxists who have education the derelict dysfunctional institution it is today.

    • thor42

      I agree. 

  • grumpy
  • Rosa19

    Challenging “educational romanticism”, …

     Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality. His “four simple truths” are:
    “Ability varies.””Half of the children are below average.””Too many people are going to college.””America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.”[22]

    • Phronesis

      But Helen told me we were all equal in the socialist paradise.

  • thor42

    Phonics is **not** a “novel” method of teaching reading.
    It was the method used here until the late 70s/early 80s, when the newfangled, completely unresearched “whole language” fad took over, and that method is still used to this day.

    Phonics was the method used by the legendary Doris Ferry on the Kapiti Coast. There was a **huge** demand for her services, and that would not have been the case if the method didn’t work. 

    A number of states in the US got cought up in the hype about “whole language” – California in particular. They then saw their reading scores plummet to becoem the worst in the US.
    Now, they have admitted their blunder in using “whole language”, and have returned to using the tried-and-tested phonics. 

    The “poster child” for phonics in New Zealand is Don Buck primary school in Auckland. I have a Listener article here about the introduction of phonics into the school –
    “We introduced Jolly Phonics in 1996. By the end of that year, every child was reading .Same teachers, just a change of methodology.
      For just a few hundred dollars, an off-the-shelf phonbics kit had done what all the shared reading and tens of thousands of dollars of Reading Recovery tuition couldn’t.” 

    (BTW – I have heard that so-called Reading Recovery uses the *same* failed methodology – “whole language” – as the main reading curriculum does. No wonder it is not very effective.)    

    Here are a couple of interesting sites about the so-called “reading wars” (phonics vs whole language) –
    ( An article on a German website, ironically about the “reading wars” in New Zealand)
    A great quote from the above site –
    “At Lewis Lemon elementary school, with a student body described by The New York Times
    as “80 percent nonwhite and 85 percent poor,” third graders scored near
    the top in statewide readings tests. Their results were bested only by
    students at a school for the gifted. How were the results achieved?
    Teachers used reading lessons “heavy on drilling and repetition, that
    emphasize phonics–that is, learning words by sounding them out.” This
    approach, however, is deemed too extreme by the new school
    superintendent, who is phasing it out.

    In discarding success, Rockford is following the demands of the
    still-dominant voices in the nation’s schools of education. They insist
    that phonics instruction be balanced with its antipode, the whole
    language “method.” Because “reading is such a complex and multifaceted
    activity,” explains Dr. Catherine Snow, professor of education at
    Harvard, “no single method is the answer.” This is like saying that
    because eating is “such a complex and multifaceted activity,” no single
    method can guide us, and that a proper diet must therefore contain a
    mixture of food and poison.” 

    Forgive the long post, but reading education (and phonics in particular) is an area that I am quite passionate about, as you
    can see.      

  • This could go good or bad thor42 – I was educated in Dunedin with the phonics method and taught both our children when they were out of school hours in the same way – they both left primary school with a three and four year above their age group in spelling – enough said.

    • thor42

      Good stuff, Neil! 
      (I should apologise for my numerous typos in my previous post, btw. My spelling is usually excellent, but I was typing so fast that a number of mistakes crept in. )
      I doesn’t surprise me that your children did so well with their spelling. Phonics really does give the children excellent “tools” as far as reading and spelling are concerned.
      I’ve always been of the opinion that “whole language” supporters (like Dame Marie Clay, the founder of Reading Recovery) have a **great deal** to answer for when it comes to the abysmal spelling, grammar and punctuation in New Zealand today. You could take a Victorian-era schoolboy and he would run rings around today’s students when it comes to reading, spelling, grammar and punctuation. So much for “progress” and our “excellent” education system.