No. 2: Should governments produce educational PROGRAMMES or should they provide INFORMED GUIDANCE? What’s the difference?

This is the second post in a planned series of posts specifically linked to teaching the foundations of literacy and raising standards of literacy for all children.

I hope you’ve managed to read the first post to set the scene, clearly labelled No. 1.

In my first post, I introduced a little history about myself including my self-appointed role in the field of the foundations of literacy and the reading debate in England – particularly the need to challenge the National Literacy Strategy guidance with its flawed ‘Searchlights’ multi-cueing (word-guessing) reading strategies brought out by the, then, Labour Government in 1998.

The first post brings us up to 2006 when Sir Jim Rose produced his world-renowned report and the Government accepted his findings – thus replacing the ‘Searchlights’ with the ‘Simple View of Reading’ (Gough and Tunmer, 1986) and establishing the need for explicit ‘Systematic Synthetic Phonics’ provision for teaching reading and spelling as all children should be taught the alphabetic principle and not be left to “ferret it out” for themselves.

I compiled some particularly relevant extracts from Sir Jim’s Final Report.

I also made it clear in my first post that Minister Nick Gibb really championed the need for Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) provision through a cross-party approach. Indeed, it was not the Conservative Party that Nick belongs to but the Labour Party that was in power during the period of official inquiries and the acceptance of Sir Jim’s recommendations.

Unbeknown to me, governmental plans proceeded behind the scenes to provide all schools with ‘hard copies’ of a Systematic Synthetic Phonics publication entitled and known to this day as ‘Letters and Sounds’ (DfES) published on April 1, 2007. Was that date ironic (that is, ‘April Fools Day’) considering what happened next?

Bear in mind that the Government had already published numerous bodies of work with specific teaching and learning content and guidance under the National Literacy Strategy umbrella – therefore numerous ‘programmes’. Nation-wide training was also rolled out for the National Literacy Strategy. Without knowing the precise figure, a huge amount of public money was spent on these associated National Literacy Strategy ‘programmes’ and training. Shelves in schools were piled high with huge glossy NLS ring binders, box kits, CD ROMS, and mass national training of teachers required funding for mass supply-teacher cover, and salaries for the NLS trainers and managers. We had ‘Progression in Phonics’ superseded by ‘Playing with Sounds’, ‘Early Literacy Support’ for Year 1 intervention, ‘Further Literacy Support’ intervention for upper Key Stage 2 children – you get the picture. Then there were updates/re-writes to at least some of these ‘programmes’ or bodies of work. This list of NLS ‘programmes’ is not definitive.

Following the parliamentary inquiry and the Rose review, the National Literacy Strategy was discredited and eventually died a death.

I don’t deny the intention was good to publish ‘Letters and Sounds’ to promote the uptake of the systematic synthetic phonics teaching principles, I suggest the decision to provide a governmental PROGRAMME was totally wrong.

Could the promotion, knowledge and understanding of the systematic synthetic phonics teaching principles based on the Simple View of Reading (no multi-cueing word-guessing) and leading-edge classroom findings have been delivered through an official guidance document NOT in the guise of a programme? Absolutely. Would this have been the right thing to do? Absolutely.

Surely, the very first point of principle is whether governments should produce ‘programmes’ at all.

Had those in charge not learnt from the mistakes of the National Literacy Strategy roll out of programmes and their training – the huge cost of public funding, constant re-development of any official programmes that became outdated such as ‘Progression in Phonics’ followed by ‘Playing with Sounds’ and now followed by ‘Letters and Sounds’? Clearly not.

Did they not consider that an official SSP programme would undermine and compete with existing, commercial SSP programmes? Clearly not.

It seems that those behind the advent of Letters and Sounds believed that telling teachers they could choose commercial programmes or use in-house programmes would be sufficient for sensible choices. Clearly this was wishful thinking.

Was it not taken into account how many senior managers and teachers fear officials such as Ofsted inspectors with the adage of ‘what would Ofsted want to see‘? Thus ‘The Fear Factor’ is always in danger of skewing teachers’ choices of what they use/follow/do.

And what about the layer of advisors, consultants, local authority personnel, independent trainers and university lecturers all using their roles to influence teachers’ decisions to use the official Letters and Sounds programme? What a complicated state of affairs.

Then as the internet has increasingly become the go-to place for ready-made resources and phonics interactive games, who knows how many teachers, teacher by teacher, provide for their pupils by calling upon the internet freebies to ‘deliver’ Letters and Sounds. We now know this tendency is commonplace to ‘deliver’ Letters and Sounds. But does this lead to the highest quality, fit-for-purpose phonics provision?

Can those in authority address these issues? If all children are to be truly well-served, there needs to be a nation-wide reflection and official impetus for ‘continuing’ professional development on a national scale.

There are further issues to be taken into account:

Did this ‘Letters and Sounds’ (DfES, 2007) publication even qualify for the description of a ‘high quality…phonics programme’?

I wrote about this apparent failure to ‘evaluate’ Letters and Sounds transparently in two previous blog posts in 2013;

Part One

Part Two

Had Letters and Sounds been piloted in a number of schools using existing systematic synthetic phonics programmes available at that time as ‘controls’ such as the Jolly Phonics programme, Read Write Inc and Sound Discovery – all leading programmes known to the government even then?

Lord Jim Prior had supported the UK Reading Reform Foundation by asking a question in the House of Lords (see page 17 of the RRF newsletter) about the piloting of the National Literacy Strategy Early Literacy Support intervention programme for Year One children before its roll-out.

Back in 2007, and to this day, people comment amongst themselves that ‘Letters and Sounds is not a programme, it’s a framework’. Anyone with any amount of common sense could see that.

The fact that Letters and Sounds has continued, virtually unchallenged ‘as a programme’ is a classic case of the Naked Emperor theme is it not?

The advent of a government-generated ‘programme’ enabled many regional and independent literacy advisors and teacher-trainers to base their training provision on the Letters and Sounds guidance especially as it was ‘not commercial’. It became the basis of phonics teacher-training in universities then and now as it is the ‘official’, non-commercial SSP programme.

In reality, Letters and Sounds became the most adopted ‘programme’ in England – and it has had, and continues to have, a significant influence on adoption around the world arguably because of its official status rather than the support it actually provides teachers for teaching and learning provision. It is arguably not supportive of teaching and learning in that it has no supportive teaching and learning resources!

Now, you could say that Letters and Sounds raised awareness of the systematic synthetic phonics teaching principles which was certainly the good-intent of those behind it. Yes, it has established ‘Systematic Synthetic Phonics’ provision across England.

But you should also ask the question as to whether an official GUIDANCE publication, NOT in the guise of a programme, would have been equally effective for informing teachers and promoting the provision of Systematic Synthetic Phonics.

You should also ask the question as to whether a government’s phonics publication described as a ‘high quality phonics programme’ would, in effect, completely undermine and strongly compete with commercial phonics programmes – programmes much more suitable for supporting teachers and teaching children as they are equipped with teaching and learning resources.

Further, if a publication described as a ‘programme’ is not equipped with teaching or learning resources, and is incomplete and not properly tested, whether this will cause hardship for teachers and teaching assistants to equip the programme via their own auspices – school by school, and often teacher by teacher, and I have often observed teaching assistants left to translate and equip Letters and Sounds themselves.

Yes, it does cause hardship – sometimes untold and unrecognised hardship.

It results in lack of consistency from one teaching or supporting adult to another.

It leads to the adoption of a plethora of ‘free’ or ready-made resources from numerous other sources which are not necessarily sufficiently content-rich or fit-for-purpose for plenty of pupil practice.

Because it is ‘official’, it leads teachers to use various resources from commercial SSP programmes but not according to the ‘order’ of introducing the letter/s-sound correspondences or the specific ‘guidance’ of the commercial programme. It is common to see practices and resources in the same school where some teachers use some of Jolly Phonics or Read Write Inc resources such as, the Frieze, the flash cards, the mnemonic system (aids to memory), the letter formation – but laboriously sticking to the ‘order’ of introducing the letter/s-sound correspondences according to the order in Letters and Sounds and adopting the notion of ‘the phases’.

So, whilst it may seem very comforting to consider, as a nation, that thousands of schools are supported by Letters and Sounds and happily providing good quality phonics provision because of the ‘high quality six phase phonics programme’ they’re all identifying with – the reality is very, very different. The translation and equipping of a resource-less, incomplete ‘manual’ (if you like) is that the provision is often closer to what we might describe as ‘bespoke’.

There are patterns of provision. I’ve recognised these patterns from school to school and even class to class. I created a graphic in 2015 to illustrate the variation of phonics provision I observed first hand. I based the graphic on the Simple View of Reading diagram.

Also misleadingly, Letters and Sounds keeps being listed as a ‘DfE validated’ programme along with fully-equipped commercial SSP programmes that have been submitted for the DfE validation process (involving self-assessment according to a ‘core criteria’ and then officially scrutinised) introduced in England a decade ago – a process which has continued to name specific DfE-validated SSP programmes for the latest DfE ‘English Hubs’ initiative and a process that is now about to be re-opened.

As Susan Godsland and I predicted some years ago, national results in the statutory Year One phonics screening check (PSC) have stalled for several years at 82%. To be fair, there are Letters and Sounds schools that have excellent PSC results but remember that these are, in theory, and practice, ‘bespoke’ Letters and Sounds schools – so not necessarily easy to replicate without close scrutiny and a deeper understanding of their provision.

The reality is that phonics provision delivered with rigour, commitment, with plenty of time devoted to pupil practice, will get good results whether the guiding SSP programme would be recognised as a ‘quality’ programme or not. Equally, a ‘good’ SSP programme can be delivered without the rigour, commitment, neglecting to follow the guidance well enough or at all, and results are more likely to be less than they could be.

Generally-speaking, we have made extraordinary, world-leading strides in England over the past 15 years with regard to our understanding of research-informed reading instruction and phonics provision – but what next to raise standards?

Government-produced ‘programmes’ can be seen to skew teachers’ choices of programme simply because they carry the stamp of ‘officialdom’ and may even lead teachers to think they must be the best if published by their government’s Department for Education. They may certainly feel ‘safer’ to be seen to adopt the ‘official’ programme – even if they kind of know it isn’t a programme, but really a framework that they need to equip.

The Letters and Sounds (DfES, 2007) ‘programme’ is a case in point. Did it ever match up to fully-resourced SSP programmes available back in 2007? Could it even be defined as a programme at all?

Will Minister Nick Gibb and his DfE officials learn from the mistakes of the past – or repeat the same mistakes again?

Do investigate the full Phonics International programme which is now available for no charge.

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