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Sure start doesn't work - but synthetic phonics can

    A report just released to the House of Lords found that the Sure Start nursery programme has failed to make an impact on educational disadvantage. Although children who participated between 2002 and 2007 made modest gains by the time they started school, by 11 these had disappeared completely.

    Considering the American Head Start programme (on which Sure Start was modelled) has been in operation for over half a century and has similarly failed to produce lasting educational benefits, this should hardly surprise us. An evaluation of Sure Start published in 2006 actually found negative outcomes for the most deprived children. Taking all this into consideration, our 2010 CPS report Cutting the Children’s Plan recommended central support for Sure Start be withdrawn.  Recognising the political cost of such a measure, we recommended that grants be made available to the poorest parents for nursery provision. The coalition did end direct funding of Sure Start, initially providing local authorities with an ‘Early Intervention Grant’ instead. This has resulted in a steady decrease in Sure Start spending, which is now estimated to be £854 million, down 28% from 2010.

    As we stated in Cutting the Children’s Plan, “...if the measures in the Children’s Plan were to improve significantly the lives of our most vulnerable children, they would be a wise investment: the economic costs of maintaining an alienated underclass are enormous, and the human costs are incalculable”. 

    Alas, delivery is highly unlikely to come from the nursery sector, dominated as it is by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and our own Early Years Foundation Stage.

    Article 12 of the UNCRC sets out the ‘right’ of children to participate in making decisions that affect them. The latest interpretation is broad almost to the point of lunacy.  In 2009 they decreed that:

    Research shows that the child is able to form views from the youngest age, even when she or he may be unable to express them verbally. Consequently, full implementation of article 12 requires recognition of, and respect for, non-verbal forms of communication including play, body language, facial expressions, and drawing and painting, through which very young children demonstrate understanding, choices and preferences.

    It’s tempting to conclude that the poor will always be with us, and that Herrnstein and Murray were right in claiming that intelligence is down more to nature than nurture. If this is so, educators’ obsession with teaching ‘higher order thinking skills’ is a major part of the problem: less-able pupils are quite capable of mastering a broad range of lower-order skills (like reading, spelling and arithmetic) which now get far too little emphasis. These skills really would make a difference - the National Child Development Study found poor literacy and numeracy skills have a devastating effect on people's chances of finding stable and well-paid employment. This is where the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) lets disadvantaged children down.

    Even though the Coalition has succeeded in getting a lot of work with letters and numbers into the EYFS (which now includes Reception Year as well as nursery), most of it consists of games and ‘learning through play’. It is highly unlikely many (if any) disadvantaged children get the sort of direct instruction of synthetic phonics which has eliminated reading failure in so many schools - against all evidence, early years specialists cling to the Piagetan fantasy that 'premature' instruction will cause lasting damage. In 2007, just before the EYFS was implemented, we ran a Reception Year pilot programme for non-readers in 14 infant schools in Suffolk and Gloucestershire. They started at Easter, and they all caught up by the end of the school year in July. The following year, Gloucestershire officials decided to run a much larger pilot, but because the EYFS had just been introduced, they had to trial our programme with Year 1 pupils. Considering that all cognitive development tracks skill in learning to read, disadvantaged children can’t afford to waste a year.

    It has now been more than nine years since Ruth Kelly announced that synthetic phonics would be introduced. Considerable progress has been made but in many local authorities (and virtually all teacher training courses) synthetic phonics is ignored. Ever since my first CPS paper in 1996, I have been calling for the introduction of externally-administered standardised tests in infant school, and for more trials. Like nursery workers, infant teachers are almost invariably trained in principles hostile to direct instruction of any kind, will only be won over when they can see their colleagues using synthetic phonics successfully. As one head teacher remarked about the synthetic phonics programme used in Clackmannanshire:

    “The scheme might have been contrary to my educational philosophy, but very quickly we were impressed by the results for the less able as well as the able. The children have developed remarkable listening and concentration skills as well as confidence and self-esteem.”

    Tom Burkard is a Visiting Professor of Education Policy at the University of Derby. He is the co-author of the Sound Foundations reading and spelling programmes, which are rapidly gaining recognition as the most cost-effective means of preventing reading failure. In June 2015 he was awarded a DPhil by Published Works by the University of Buckingham.

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