NC22: Memorandum submitted by Elizabeth Nonweiler

Summary

The National Curriculum has contributed to the likelihood that children receive a broad and balanced curriculum and are taught essential skills.

On the other hand, the large number of documents containing detailed directives and guidance has been damaging for the following reasons:

- There are too many local authority consultants and advisors who, in effect, police schools' compliance according to their own interpretation of government guidance and legislation. The result is a climate of oppression and a stifling of debate.

- Teachers feel overwhelmed and confused by the number of government initiatives and the amount of detail included in most of them.

- The initiatives teachers are expected to follow are seldom based on sound evidence and they are sometimes contradictory.

- Sometimes schools use resources and training financed by government because they are free and automatically delivered, and not because they believe they are better than those provided by the private sector.

- Teachers are not well informed about teaching methods and the results of relevant research.

I have recommended that there is a statutory National Curriculum that sets out broad principles of what should be taught, but that government should not be involved in the detail.

If schools are to be given more freedom to decide on teaching methods, there is need for a debate about the best way to ensure that the methods chosen are effective.

Introduction

I am a consultant and trainer in the teaching of reading. My qualifications for submitting evidence for this inquiry are as follows:

I have been a teacher in England for over thirty years, and so I have relevant experience of education both before and after the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988.

I have personal experience of local authority advisers using excessive pressure to enforce their interpretation of government guidelines.

I have expert knowledge of the effects of government initiatives on the teaching of reading:

- As a teacher of young children and of older students with difficulties in reading, I have considerable and varied experience.

- As a consultant and trainer in the teaching of reading, I meet teachers from a wide range of schools and hear about their experiences and views.

- I have studied the teaching of reading and how it has been influenced by government action, both informally and formally, including post-graduate courses with the Open University.

- I have recently investigated the impact of the new government programme, Letters and Sounds, and written a review based on my findings.

I am an active committee member of the Reading Reform Foundation, a group that campaigns for reform in the teaching of reading.

Information Based on my Experience and Knowledge

1. Before the National Curriculum, I found that there was not enough structure or consistency in the curriculum as a whole to ensure that nearly all children received a broad and balanced education. I believe this situation improved overall after the introduction of the National Curriculum. With specific reference to the teaching of reading, before the National Curriculum many teachers, including myself, were encouraged to use fashionable methods such as 'whole language', and the result of this was that there were unnecessarily low standards in many schools.

2. However, after the introduction of the National Curriculum, the government began to overload schools with initiatives in the form of detailed guidance and directives. This has caused several problems which I shall outline below.

3. Teachers came under increasing pressure to teach according to interpretation of these initiatives by inspectors and local authority advisors. I have heard this anecdotally from many teachers.

4. I also have personal experience of it. In 2004, I was not allowed by my local authority to teach children consistently according to the principles of synthetic phonics. I was told I must use the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) 'searchlights'. These were interpreted as meaning that some children, who had been labelled as 'visual learners', must be encouraged to guess words from picture clues instead of being encouraged to use phonics. I was also told that I must use the government programmes, Progression in Phonics (PiPs) and Playing with Sounds. These programmes have now been withdrawn by government and replaced by the synthetic phonics programme, Letters and Sounds. In other words, government initiatives were used as justification for preventing me from teaching in a way that was later promoted through new government initiatives.

5. This pressure continues to have harmful effects. Many teachers are now resentful and cynical about all government interventions, and so they are resistant to those based on good practice. Pressure to comply also stifles professional debate in staff rooms.

6. Teachers feel overwhelmed by the number and variety of initiatives. This became increasingly apparent to me as I investigated teachers' responses to Letters and Sounds. (My review is included with this submission as supplementary material.) At present teachers of five year olds are expected, either legally or through pressure from local authority advisors or inspectors, to take account of

- The National Curriculum

- The Primary Framework for Literacy, including 12 strands, linked to Early Learning Goals, with End of Year Objectives for each strand

- Letters and Sounds, based on the Rose Review, with a Teaching Programme (208 pages) and Notes of Guidance (28 pages), including 6 Phases

- The Statutory Framework (54 pages) and Practice Guidance (114 pages) for the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), including 6 Areas of Learning and Development with 28 'Aspects'

- The Foundation Stage Profile Handbook (127 pages) and Profile Scale Booklet, including 13 assessment scales with 9 points, based on 'Stepping Stones' and 'Early Learning Goals', making 107 points in all. The Profile Handbook includes the statement, 'To complete the Foundation Stage Profile scale booklet by the end of the reception year, you need to record each item that the child has achieved in each scale. Each point should be considered separately.'

Teachers of children in Year 1 are likely to be asked to use

- Letters and Sounds

- ELS

- Reading Recovery, promoted by government under the umbrella of Every Child a Reader

as well as

- The National Curriculum

- The Primary Framework for Literacy

These details are incomplete, but I am too confused and exhausted by them myself to explain them further.

 

7. Government initiatives are seldom based on the results of proper research, but apparently on compromise between the views of different influential 'experts'. I believe this was so in the cases of the NLS, PiPs, PwS and Early Literacy Support (ELS).

8. Now there are initiatives and guidance that contradict the recommendation of the Rose Review to use synthetic phonics for the initial teaching of reading. I have given two examples below.

9. Letters and Sounds is based on the recommendations of the Rose Review, but the government is funding and promoting Reading Recovery. In spite of its propaganda, Reading Recovery is still based on flawed methods that contradict the recommendations of the Rose Review. Reading Recovery is for children in Year 1 upwards, who have not grasped how to read. To me, it is a scandal that government promotes and funds Reading Recovery for the children most in need of help.

10. The teachers of children affected by the Statutory Framework for the EYFS are also affected by Letters and Sounds. Some local authority advisors use the emphasis on play in the EYFS to put pressure on teachers to abandon all direct teaching, while others use Letters and Sounds to put pressure on teachers to begin a programme of direct teaching of reading.

11. Here is a small collection of quotes that show the confusion felt by practising teachers. I gathered these when writing my review of Letters and Sounds:

- On one hand we are told to let them play and our role is to scaffold, but at the same time we are being told to get them reading vowel digraphs during the first term in F2. Look at EYFS and Letters and Sounds, they are clearly not out of the same stable ...

- Is phonics part of literacy or not? ... I don't understand the new framework.

- Just to clarify, 20 minutes Letters and Sounds a day and then 40 minutes CLL (Communication Language and Literacy from the EYFS) activity per day? It's all driving me a bit crazy, so much to fit in and a lot of pressure from others to do stuff in the EYFS.

12. When the government provides materials and training financed by taxpayers and delivered free to every school, schools may choose methods and training because they are free, and not because they believe they are the most effective.

13. For most of my teaching career I knew very little about how to teach reading effectively, in spite of my roles involving the teaching of reading. I have found an extraordinary lack of knowledge amongst teachers as a whole. In order to make good professional decisions, teachers need to be informed about teaching methods and the results of research. Money spent on implementing directives and guidance might be better spent on funding more independent reviews and research, relevant independent publications, independent practical research, and training to inform teachers of the results.

14. Since the National Literacy Strategy was introduced, many school inspectors have based their judgements partly on the degree to which schools follow government guidelines and partly on the results of non-standardised statutory tests (SATs). If schools were to be given the freedom to choose which methods to use, they would have to be accountable for the results. In my view, it would be better to judge schools' teaching of essential skills using standardised tests. I am not sure whether the availability of test results would be enough to ensure effective teaching, or whether action for poor results would need to be taken by local authorities or central government.

Recommendations

There should be a National Curriculum, setting out broad principles of what should be taught, and schools should be expected to follow this curriculum.

There should be no further statutory requirements with respect to the content of the curriculum.

Guidance, resources and training to support the implementation of the National Curriculum should not be provided free by government, but by the private sector.

Government should encourage professional debate about how to implement the National Curriculum by ensuring that teachers are informed of the results of reviews and research.

Schools should be free to choose teaching methods, but also accountable for the effect of the methods they use to teach essential skills. Government should encourage debate about the best way to achieve this.

14 March 2008