Does Michael Gove really know what he’s doing?
It strikes me* as odd that Michael Gove, a man with views on education that seem to have emerged from behind a Victorian school desk, can continue in his position as Education Secretary. Watching him blunder through his policies, changing his mind as he goes, flooding the education system with outdated practices which show no understanding of the day-to-day job of primary school teachers like me, I wonder, does he really know what he is doing?
Having taught Key Stage One (ages six to seven) for six years, I would like to challenge a few of the ‘changes’ that have been made to the English curriculum by the education secretary and share a few of my trade secrets that get children interested in reading and writing – many of the things that Gove seems so keen on phasing out.
In my relatively short career I have seen many changes to teaching materials and government expectations. Most frustrating are the changes apparently made only for the sake of making changes – and not for the benefit of children or even results.
Since the change in government in 2010, Gove has removed the ‘Literacy Framework’, a detailed outline of how to teach literacy in a broad and balanced way and leaving nothing in its place. Many of the inspiring and interesting topic resources are lost to teachers and still we have no government guidance on what the government want primary teachers to teach in literacy. A draft document has been sent out to schools (we received this in July 2012) for a literacy curriculum to be published in 2014, but what are we meant to use in the meantime?
Considering Gove said himself: “Nothing matters more than giving every child access to the best possible teaching and leaders”, he has removed a good baseline for a broad and balanced literacy curriculum and has failed to put anything in its place.
This isn’t a problem for experienced teachers who can draw upon past experiences, frameworks and resources to continue their lessons. But what about those who have recently qualified? All of those fantastic ex-bankers, ex-military, ex-businessmen who are so desperately needed in the profession, but who have no idea how to stimulate creativity and writing in Key Stay One? Where do they begin?
As for this new literacy curriculum, what a joke! “Ensure that pupils understand through being shown the skills and processes essential to writing.” I wonder what they think teachers have actually been teaching Year Two children to do? Turn cartwheels?
“Drama and role play can contribute to pupils’ writing,” it says, continuing to state the obvious. Yet most teachers know that this is essential to teaching writing in primary school. Where is the mention of composition being a creative process requiring a creative stimulus? Dictation has crept into this document in a blatant attempt at stifling individuality and fun within the classroom.
The government seems to base its policies on a system of Chinese Whispers (a wonderful game if you’re a six-year-old). Take phonics for example: at some point in 2006 following the (Labour commissioned) Rose Review, politicians got wind of phonics…. ‘ooh phonics you say’…. ‘what is this phonics thing?’
Phonics has been around in various forms for years. It is a system that helps children recognise letters or groups of letters as sounds in words which if blended together build up words on a page (such as: m-igh-t or ch-i-p-s). Thus the sounds blended, the words read, the text understood, perhaps a story enjoyed, facts learned or instructions followed etc. It is one vital tool by which reading and understanding, or writing and spelling, is the end product.
Plenty of research has been carried out to support the use of phonics as one strand in the process of learning to read. Now, I am a great advocate of synthetic phonics and teach a daily lesson for 20 minutes, but I cannot fathom the total phonics blindness that has been endorsed by this government and of course good old Gove. It seems that they have lost all understanding of what the process of phonics is actually for – and now six-year-olds are sitting exams for them!
Gove rolled out a phonics screening test in June 2012, to which the main response from Key Stage One teachers was either head in hands groan or laughing out loud. This test aimed at increasing six-year-olds’ ability to blend sounds, not for the purpose of reading and understanding, but purely for the sake of blending…
The most ridiculous part of the test was the section on blending ‘alien or nonsense words’. Never mind the fact that in reality when reading, if a child comes across an unfamiliar word, will try to blend it, if this is still unrecognisable will use the context of the sentence to decipher the word. Plus the fact that many words in the English language are not possible to decode (try blending sounds in laugh or because). A child’s ability to blend nonsense, leads to them learning precisely what, Mr Gove?
There are two reasons why I remain incensed about the imposition of such a diagnostically useless test (it in no way examines reading ability). Firstly, it puts tremendous pressure on very young children who, by the age of six, might be branded failures by the government, or by their parents, because they can’t read 30 out of the 40 words they’re being tested on (during what, for any child in Infants’ School, is a long time to have to sustain concentration for).
Secondly, the obsession with testing phonics makes the assumption that teachers don’t actually know what their children are capable of within this subject area. My advice to parents is: if your child failed the phonics screening test, don’t worry. As long as you read with them and to them on a daily basis, encourage them to blend sounds and read words by sight for understanding you are doing the right thing. Don’t forget that many European children don’t begin school until they are seven. Are they panicking? No!
I will continue my personal approach to teaching reading and writing, based on a mixture of daily phonics lessons (not including nonsense words), immersion in a range of different texts, drama and role play and finally the thing that gets any child writing a mixture of experiences, awe and wonder to inspire creativity in writing. Not teaching to the test!
Oh and if you want a good laugh, check out the training video for teachers carrying out the phonics screening test.
*Jane Smith is a pseudonymTagged in: education, English, Key Stage One, michael gove, national curriculum, phponics, teaching
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