Any Questions?

So it’s been another week of big headlines about education and literacy, with all manner of uninformed and over-opinionated people wading into the debate. Also, thank goodness, plenty of very sensible and thoughtful folk.

On Radio 4’s ‘Any Questions?’ programme this week the panel consisted of Billy Bragg , Peter Hain, Ed Vaisey and Deborah ‘Dragons Den’ Meaden – a very successful and wealthy individual who said on the programme how much she hated school – “I was disengaged from school by the age of seven. I just turned off.” It makes you wonder how many highly intelligent individuals had and still have similar experiences of school – just going though the motions, apathetic or actively hating every uncreative minute.

Edward Henry Butler Vaizey, son of the late Lord Vaizey, is the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries. He’s a barrister, and apparently an expert on teaching literacy in the Early Years.

Of course Mr Vaisey has very strong opinions on how to teach reading. Why not? – everyone else in politics does. So how do we improve literacy? “We need to teach the basics in primary schools,” said Mr V. Well duh! Great idea. How come nobody else thought of that? “We need a literacy programme focused on phonics – which is the best way to teaching reading.” So there.

But seriously – how come Mr Vaisey believes that ‘phonics is the best way to teach reading’? Surely if you’re going to have a view on the teaching of reading you need to know that phonics is simply a sub-skill – one amongst several. Phonics is certainly not ‘a way to teach reading’.

Someone should have asked Mr Vaisey the following questions:

* How important is it to memorise key ‘whole words’?
* How does phonics help to read words that are phonically irregular?
* How important is the syntactic cueing system?
* How important is the semantic cueing system?
* How important are picture cues for beginning readers?
* How important is oracy and story telling for beginning readers?
* How important is the love of stories and literature?
* What happens to children who equate ‘barking at print’ with real reading?
* How important is ‘reading for meaning’?
* How important is motivation in learning to read?

If people are going to have strong opinions on the teaching of reading then they must surely be able and willing to discuss the basis for their opinions.

The question asked on Any Questions? was, “Why does the 6th richest country in the world have rising illiteracy rates?” This is a nonsense, of course. Nobody disputes that test results have in fact risen year on year. Even the Chief Inspector has said only that the rising graph of test results has ‘stalled’. So where does the public and its politicians get their misinformation? The real issue is – how come other countries have increased their test scores much faster than ours, and in some cases have moved ahead of those achieved in UK schools?

Maybe another question ought to be, “Why did test scores in literacy begin to stall after the introduction of the National Literacy Strategy and its rigid pedagogy?”

Billy Bragg spoke about the ‘culture wars’ that take place in our schools – by which he seemed to mean the battles over pedagogy. He said teaching has in many places been reduced to an exercise in box-ticking and testing, instead of focusing on teaching key skills and ‘nurturing’ – by which he seems to mean nurturing the personal, social, physical and spiritual intelligences, and enabling children’s emotional literacy and creativity.

“Children need real teaching rather than just teaching how to pass exams.”

Deborah Meaden said, “We need teachers to teach in an engaging way, and teachers need the scope and the opportunity to do this.”

Peter Hain said, “Many children come into school with little in the way of social skills – let alone being ready to read (or be tested on phonics) at a very young age.”

Ms Meaden pointed out that “We should trust teachers more. Formal teaching before the age of seven can turn children off learning. What’s the point of being told at the age of 5 that you’re not up to it?”

I’m not so sure I trust the opinion of every single teacher in the profession, but I’d rather trust the profession as a whole than trust a gaggle of politicians to know what they’re talking about. The problem is, ‘the profession as a whole’ needs to thrash out its opinions on these matters, and then encapsulate them in a proper document, which is the way things are done in Finland, for example. 3Di nominates the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education to lead the debate. – Discussion on education on the player from 0.21.00

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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