Cambridge University · Charlie Taylor · Graeme Paton · Telegraph

The Philistines are upon us!

On January 26th the Telegraph’s chief education correspondent Graeme Paton reported that Cambridge University has been given the go-ahead by the government to establish a primary school for 630 pupils. The University of Cambridge Training School will be overseen by Cambridge dons and will be used to train teachers undertaking their PGCE training.

The idea is supposed to provide a bridge between conventional university-based courses and on-the-job training offered by many schools. It is also intended to promote ‘school-focused academic research’. This set me to thinking: if they want to do ‘school-focused academic research’, why not offer to train another school matched for SES and other relevant variables and make comparisons over, say, seven years of the primary schooling?

So, I decided to put my money where my mouth is and I wrote to Charlie Taylor of the National College for Teaching and Leadership and made the following proposal: 

I saw reported in the Telegraph that the National College for Teaching and Leadership is sponsoring the opening of a University of Cambridge Training School, which will be ‘overseen by senior dons from the university’. I believe strongly that Sounds-Write can do a better job of teaching children literacy than Cambridge University, and would like to make you a serious offer. The offer is that Sounds-Write will train all the primary staff in any school you would like to match for SES and other salient variables with the newly established school. We will pay for the training of the teachers and we will supply all the materials required to teach our Sounds-Write programme. I will do this if you will agree to provide independent assessors of the progress of the children in the two schools and we can agree on the methods of assessment, which, as far as I am concerned, would be the phonics screening check, an agreed test of reading and one of spelling, as well as the SATs results.Sounds-Write provides phonics training for teachers and has been operating for eleven years. It was approved for matched funding by the DfE during the period in which it was available, and our trainings have been inspected by Ofsted twice and found to be excellent. To date, we have trained eleven thousand teachers and teaching assistants in UK, the Republic of Ireland and Australia.As Mrs Janet Hilary, the head of St George’s CEPS in Wandsworth put it to me recently, literacy is the foundation on which the whole of the rest of the curriculum rests. Her school’s latest results amply demonstrate that philosophy as can be seen from the table below. They are even more remarkable when one considers that over half the pupils at the school are on free schools meals.

St George’s CEPS in Wandsworth 2013 results
LEA av %
Eng av %
Reading: Level 4
Reading: Level 5
Writing: Level 4
Writing: Level 5
Spelling, grammar and punctuation: Level 4
Spelling, grammar and punctuation: Level 5

This is a genuine and, I think, an exciting offer and I sincerely hope that you will consider it. I look forward to hearing from you, John Walker

 On February 4th, I received this letter from Charlie Taylor’s secretary:

Dear Mr Walker Thank you for your email. I have passed on the request to Charlie. He mentioned that your programme sounds really interesting, but unfortunately he is considering no such trial at the moment. He will be sure to come back to you in the future if this ever changes. Kind regards, Veronica, PA to Charlie Taylor, Chief Executive of the National College for Teaching and Leadership Department for Education

Of course, I never did believe for one minute that Taylor would take up the offer and, even if he had been interested, the dons would almost certainly have torpedoed it. I mean, what would happen if some upstart little outfit like Sounds-Write were to outperform the mighty dons? What a shame we can’t ‘go compare’ when we have Professor Morag Styles, a professor at Homerton College, part of Cambridge University’s Faculty of Education, recently making public her support of the anti-phonics ‘academic’ Andrew Davis. She went further, demonstrating her clear lack of understanding of what modern phonics teaching is, when she talked about ‘tedious drills’ and other such nonsense that has nothing whatever to do with good quality modern phonics programmes like Sounds-Write. Not that Morag has ever done any phonics teaching to young children, of course.

So, what with their apparent, according to the Telegraph article, interest in ‘learning styles’ and their likely antipathy to phonics, I just can’t wait to see how they get on. But it would have been an interesting encounter had they had the courage to challenge my impertinence!

4 thoughts on “The Philistines are upon us!

  1. Well done, John! We need to broadcast your offer – and the Cambridge response to it.

    I would be fearless to do exactly the same using the programmes and training that I am associated with.

    In fact, I frequently and commonly say how any of the leading SP and LP programme authors would be fearless in having their programmes and practices tested and compared. We are that confident having based the resources and practice on leading-edge research, experience and knowing of our own results.

    All credit to you and your long-established and well-collated spelling results following use of Sounds-Write! It is extraordinary that 'the establishment' is not more interested – and curious!

    The trouble is with the Cambridge folk focusing only on their school and practices, there is no truly helpful comparison.

    Isn't this what the Reading Recovery establishment has done all these years?

    When will any of the universities take a proper interest in researching the leading SP and LP programmes and practices considering the advent of their level of official scrutiny and governmental support through the phonics match-funding initiative?


  2. Hi Debbie and thank you for your comment.
    After reading what you said about being fearless, I feel that the David and Goliath analogy isn't too misplaced.
    The truth is that there are so few people in education who have the slightest idea of what we're about and, as you say, they don't seem to be even mildly interested. I suppose that because it's to do with the fact that they think phonics starts and ends with 'cat'. The thing is that, if it did, it would all end in cat-astrophe – as it does for so many children and adults.
    The real trouble with universities like Cambridge is that they're smug, self-satisfied and believe they have all the answers, when there's so much outside of those ivory towers about which they know nothing. And it that which is their achilles heel.
    As I've commented before, it's up to us to build our success and our evidence brick by brick.
    Put not thy trust in leaders!

  3. The calibre of some academics' understanding of phonics teaching is exemplifed in this post from a PGCE student:

    "Sadly it's me vs the rest of the course (inc the lecturer) wrt exclusive phonics!

    There's a lot of focus on the "Synthetic phonics and the teaching of reading: the debate surrounding England’s ‘Rose Report’" paper and …..plenty of anecdotal evidence.


    During our lectures we were told that exclusive phonics isn't ideal because:
    a) there are a large number or irregular words in the English language

    b) high frequency words (the top 100) are recommended to be learnt to be recognised

    c) the evidence is that children from “word rich” environments will do better academically"

  4. Hi Maizie and thanks for the comment.
    Sadly, this kind of thing is all too common. I feel sorry for the students on the course. This kind of shortchanging is what we've come to expect from so many of these primary and secondary teacher training courses.
    The good news is that I've agreed to run a Sounds-Write course for a school in Bedford that has been awarded teacher training on the job status. Our first cohort of twenty-four trainees will be starting in September.
    Best regards,
    PS See you in Durham for dinner in March?

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