Agitation about synthetic phonics and the Clackmannanshire experiment by Nick Gibb, then an opposition MP, had two outcomes: a systematic review of research (led by Carole Torgerson) and a committee of enquiry (chaired by Jim Rose).
Torgerson’s research review came to similar conclusions to the US National Reading Panel:
- teaching phonics was helpful but there was no apparent advantage to any particular method.
- systematic phonics teaching had no significant impact on comprehension.
This was embarrassing for Rose, who clearly favoured synthetic phonics, so he swept these results aside. He clearly knew of the research, because the Rose Report has a footnote referring to it, but he wrote it off in a cavalier fashion:
Findings from different research programmes are sometimes contradictory or inconclusive, and often call for further studies to test tentative findings… Developers of national strategies, much less schools and settings, cannot always wait for the results of long term research studies.
He then set about finding substitute evidence.
Firstly his team drew uncritically on the Clackmannanshire experiment, ignoring all the other activities which had made this a success (see our previous post).
Secondly, he organised for inspectors to visit 24 schools nominated as exemplary for their phonics teaching. Half were nominated by the National Primary Strategy and the others by publishers of synthetic phonics reading schemes. Inspectors observed a total of 64 lessons.
Given that these schools were nominated as exemplary, it is surprising that only 7 out of 10 lessons were found ‘outstanding’ or ‘good’. No attempt was made to visit schools with good results in literacy but which different methods.
It was hardly surprising that this flawed methodology would provide positive support for synthetic phonics. On this basis, sweeping policy changes were made. Schools were instructed to use synthetic phonics, and reading schemes were subsidised which used only synthetic phonics.
Ofsted started policing schools to ensure that they followed this method rigorously. Ofsted also imposed this on teacher training courses, subjecting them to short-notice spot-check inspections. Failure to demonstrate full commitment to teaching systematic synthetic phonics could result in courses being closed down.
Ofsted’s approach was fanatical and narrow-minded. The training document to support Ofsted inspections of the new early reading curriculum mentioned ‘phonics’ 130 times but ‘comprehension’ just 9 times.
The most rigorous policing came through a new phonics test at the end of Year 1, including non-words. More soon.
This short series began with Phonics: myths and evidence on 31 May.