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.
Teaching unions are baying for blood over the 6+ phonics test - only 58% of our 6-year-olds can decode letters to sound. From their viewpoint, teachers can't possibly do wrong, so it's the test that is at fault. Now that phonics advocate Nick Gibb is no longer schools minister, the unions can smell blood: they sense that David Laws, like most politicians, will put his career before principle.
To the uninitiated, the passions raised by the 'reading wars' are all but incomprehensible. On one side, the 'blob' argues that good teachers use a mixture of approaches to suit the individual's 'learning style'. They teach whole words using flashcards, and encourage children to 'guess' at unknown words in lavishly-illustrated story books. They also argue that teaching children to decode words will prevent them from understanding what they read.
On the other side, synthetic phonics advocates point to an unimpeachable mass of evidence from the cognitive sciences which demonstrates that children who are actively taught to decode print to sound make much better progress and are far less likely to fail.
Until 2006, the blob had it all their own way. The National Literacy Strategy - which had been launched with great fanfare by David Blunkett in 1998 - had a few sops for the phonics advocates, and even these were bitterly resented by the extreme wing of the whole-language lobby. But in fact it was a political compromise which more or less set in aspic the practices which were failing at least a quarter of our children.
But by 2006, the evidence for synthetic phonics was incontrovertible: in West Dunbartonshire as well as Clackmannanshire, reading failure had been all but eliminated. Even the BBC was impressed: Newsnight and other programmes saw the huge difference made by determined teaching of phonics to 4- and 5-year-olds. But the real game-changer was Tony Blair: his son was saved from ignominious failure by synthetic phonics. With the press and media onside, Blair forced Ruth Kelly to abandon the National Literacy Strategy. Andrew Adonis was elevated and installed in the DfES to knock heads together. Former HMI chief Jim Rose was appointed to head a commission to see how synthetic phonics could be rolled out in England.
And here's where things started to go wrong: as I argued, trying to impose synthetic phonics from above would end in tears. Letters and Sounds was produced by the DfES and distributed free of charge to infant schools. The lead author was a further education teacher who had encyclopedic knowledge of reading research, but no experience of actually teaching children to read. Letters and Sounds was a one-speed programme that made no allowances for children with learning difficulties. The key to the Scottish successes was the determination of their teachers to ensure that all slow learners got the extra help they needed.
Indeed, many advocates of synthetic phonics shot themselves in the foot by claiming that the method was a miracle cure. With the intensity of medieval theologians, they debated how many phonemes could dance on the head of a pin - they simply could not conceive that the determination of the teacher was vastly more important than the programme itself. There are dozens of good phonics programmes on the market, and the only thing that counts is whether the teacher likes it and is prepared to persist with it until even the most dyslexic pupil has mastered basic phonics.
As I have always argued, there is no point in specifying process if you fail to test outcomes. It would be difficult to devise worse tests than ones we already have: on the 2009 reading test for 11-year-olds, 23 out of a possible 50 points were awarded for 'emotional intelligence' - predicting how characters in a story might have felt or acted.
Alas, Nick Gibb's 6+ decoding test wasn't quite the right solution. It contained a lot of non-words such as “vog”, which made it easy to ridicule. Gibb rejected my proposal to use computer adaptive tests (CATs), such as the University of Durham's InCAS test. It can be administered with very little disruption, and it also tests vocabulary and spelling. It is broadly acceptable to the profession, yet it still pinpoints failure with unerring accuracy. As I pointed out, CATs could be put online and made available to parents who are worried about their child's progress. This would be truly revolutionary, especially if this were coupled with vouchers for children who can't read.
This would really upset the teachers' unions. Unlike the American industrial and craft unions I joined in my younger days, they fail to understand that a union's bargaining power is immensely increased if they can guarantee productivity by winnowing out workers who aren't up to the job.