As minister of state for schools, Nick Gibb knew very well the need for ringing the changes in education. He understood well that a bull in a china shop approach would be counterproductive in assisting Michael Gove in bringing about those much needed changes. As a result, he tended to be pretty even-handed, dispensing adverse criticism of schools and practices where it was warranted and giving praise where due. Despite the fact that he was seen by many as being an effective minister, he lost his job in this week’s cabinet reshuffle.
When I met him before the last election, he declared his intention, should the Conservative Party win the election, to promote phonics teaching in schools. He was as good as his word. Last summer began the initiative of match-funding, whereby for every pound spent by a school on phonics training or resources to support phonics teaching the government would match it up to a total of £3,000 per school. This applied only to schools with a Key Stage 1 component.
Aside from the rather obvious unfairness that some schools, simply because of the size of intake, have many more members of staff needing training than others, as well as other anomalies in the scheme, what has become more and more apparent as time has gone on is that by far and away the lion’s share of the money available under match-funding has been spent on resources (books, etc) and NOT on training.
Throughout the almost ten years we have been training teaching practitioners, our experience at Sounds-Write has been that while many practitioners sincerely believe they already know what phonics teaching is and think they have a good idea of how to teach it, in practice many don’t. They come to our courses without understanding, either from a conceptual or practical point of view, how the sounds of the language relate to the way we spell those sounds. neither do they have much idea of the particular skills required to teach reading. What’s more, their knowledge of how children learn and what motivates children is hazy at best.
Why is this? I would contend that it is mostly to do with the poverty of instruction in the training institutions, which is why Sounds-Write has always argued that training is so fundamental. Because Nick Gibb, like so many of his predecessors, didn’t really ever quite understand just how crucial this is, he lumped training and resources together with the consequence that we have huge numbers of teachers who still have the haziest knowledge of how to teach phonics. It was a big mistake.
The challenge for Gibb’s successor, David Laws, is to make good the error and give support to training. Where the government should also be spending our money is on setting up research projects to find out which phonics programmes are the most effective.