The Sunday Times

September 18th, 2011

The 40 little words bringing sense back to the classroom

After compassion fatigue, choice fatigue and information fatigue, we now face gloom fatigue. People are beginning to be tired of hearing that disaster looms and that we are all going to hell in a handcart. For one thing it isn’t entirely true. There are, for instance, signs that disaster may be receding on the education front.

Last week the education secretary, Michael Gove, made a bracing speech to the National College for School Leadership’s conference for head teachers in Nottingham, in which he had another go at Ofsted inspection, which has for years created gloom fatigue in many people who care about education. He pointed out that more than half the secondary schools and nearly a fifth of the primary schools that Ofsted had rated “outstanding” were no such thing.

They have achieved this accolade despite the fact that their quality of teaching and learning — one of the categories inspected — was not rated outstanding. This means that in reality 410 schools could and should lose their “outstanding” Ofsted label. Gove has promised to get the new chief inspector on the case.

It defies belief that a school with only a “good” or “satisfactory” report on its quality of teaching and learning should nonetheless be officially designated as “outstanding” — especially as Ofsted’s perception of “good” and “satisfactory” is not high. The reason for this misleading anomaly is that under current regulations schools must be measured in a total of 27 categories. That is far too many — they include the extent to which pupils adopt healthy lifestyles, the extent to which pupils feel safe and the effectiveness with which the school promotes equal opportunity and tackles discrimination.

Perhaps it is schools’ anxieties about this last demand from Ofsted inspectors that explains the astonishing number of children whose teachers accuse them of racism and hate crimes and report them — as they must — to the local authority, which then records them. The Manifesto Club, a civil liberties group, discovered recently that more than 20,000 schoolchildren of 11 or under were so reported in 2009-10. Some were younger than four. This is the result of a Labour directive of 2000. Head teachers who send in no such denunciations are criticised for under-reporting.

It ought not to be necessary to explain why this is stupid and wicked. It is also a perfect example of what has gone wrong with the state sector generally. Attacking social immobility, homophobia and unhealthy eating may be important goals, but they are not — or should not be — the primary purpose of people providing crucial public services, such as teaching, organising parking or rubbish, fighting crime or caring for the sick and needy. Spending a lot of time and energy on secondary or tertiary goals cannot help but distract time and energy from the primary goal. What’s needed in public services, as any athlete or research scientist would say, is focus — an unswerving concentration on the most important thing.

In recent years public servants have been driven to distraction by the number of often unnecessary goals they have been forced to pursue. With this distraction goes incompetence, uncertainty, confusion, bureaucracy and fear. Clearly the teachers prepared to do something as daft as denouncing a toddler for saying “gaylord” must either be stupid or — more likely — afraid. I think this fear runs right across all public services, with people constantly worrying that they are not tirelessly working towards the 27 must-dos, rather as in Chairman Mao’s China.

Like other public servants, teachers must be freed from worrying too much about wider social initiatives. There are plenty of other agencies for that. Teachers must be allowed and encouraged to focus on teaching. And that is what Gove is trying to promote. Last week he said — and it is in the education bill, too — that Ofsted must focus on only four key areas of inspection: pupil achievement; teaching; leadership and management; and behaviour and safety.

At last. Away with all distractions. So obvious, so necessary and so very much what parents want and probably teachers too.

According to a report published last week by the exam board Pearson, 97% of parents believe that quality of teaching is what matters in a school. How could anyone in the teaching establishment, or among Ofsted inspectors, have thought anything else? It ought to be obvious, too, that no matter how good the teaching, a child cannot learn if it cannot read. There is almost no clearer predictor of social mobility than reading, in the negative sense — those who can’t read are condemned to downward mobility.

Yet children are still failing to become readers. In this year’s tests it emerged that one in six 11-year-olds leaving primary school did not reach the reading standard expected (which is very modest). One in 10 boys aged 11 can read no better than a seven-year-old. However, last week a little light appeared on this gloomy front as well.

Some time ago Gove’s expert advisers designed a neat 40-word, one-to-one test for six-year-olds, to show how well each child could decode short words — the necessary but not sufficient skill underlying full reading and comprehension. It uses nonsense words such as “dov”, as well as real words such as bat (for example, b-a-t spells bat) and was designed to stop the reading rot in schools without upsetting anybody.

The test has been piloted in 300 schools and was studied by Sheffield Hallam University. On Friday it received a resoundingly good report. The great majority of schools and teachers in the study found the test helpful, appropriate, easy and quick to administer, either fun or at least not stressful for the children and useful for assessing a child’s phonic decoding ability. Perhaps most importantly, 43% of teachers said the test had enabled them to identify children with reading problems that they hadn’t previously recognised.

The test is not really a test: it is merely an assessment and an aid to teachers. No child can fail it or fear it; the results will not be made known publicly, so teachers need not fear it either. It seems to have brought them along with it despite the fact that a number are opposed to phonics. It might even have persuaded the more recalcitrant ones that synthetic phonics is genuinely the first and best building block of successful reading. At last, there are some glimmers of hope through the educational gloom.