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The Case against Stephen Twigg

August 17, 2013

It is far easier to argue against Twigg than Gove because there is very little evidence I can find to undermine the wide consensus that he has not come to grips with any difficult education issues at all. As with Gove I don’t have much time for some of the usual criticisms. Those who think Twigg could have proposed an all out war on choice and diversity (closing grammar schools, nationalising academies, banning private schools) are simply repeating slogans from another era, not serious policies compatible with getting elected to government. I won’t condemn Stephen Twigg for not being Roy Hattersley. Nor do I have much sympathy for the idea that because he is saying nothing about that agenda then he is saying nothing at all. There is more of a problem when he speaks than when he doesn’t. Also, as with Gove, I have little time for criticism about style, personality or the details of the policy-making process. If Twigg has made little impact, I think it has more to do with the message than the man.

My rough summary of Twigg’s position is that he opposes Gove where Gove is right, but agrees with him where he is wrong. The core problem, and this is one which will leave Labour vulnerable over education, is that he is quite happy to join with the education establishment and support dumbing-down. A couple of examples stand out on this. Firstly, he signed a letter to the Guardian denying the effectiveness of phonics co-signed with a number of prominent phonics denialists, including the Socialist Workers Party’s Michael Rosen who has famously described phonics as “barking at print”. Secondly, he wrote an article, again for the Guardian,  after the English GCSE farrago attacking Gove for not overruling the exam regulator and agreeing with the headteachers who were lobbying to raise the GCSE pass rate by 10% and let about three quarters of school leavers have a grade C in English, effectively making the qualification worthless as a means of distinguishing between the literate and illiterate.

Both of these actions show a man who is willing to ignore the evidence, and the agenda of his allies, as long as he gets to make an attack on his opposite number. Labour has always had trouble over phonics simply because they tend not to believe that figures in the educational establishment would actually leave children illiterate over a point of ideological dogma. Attempts by the last Labour government to encourage evidence-based teaching of reading were twice derailed by phonics denialists. Despite a capacity to make speeches about looking to experts and to evidence, and the importance of bipartisanship, Twigg has attacked Gove in the one area where he is simply letting evidence count for more than a belief in magic and where, in my view, he is most likely to make a real difference to children’s opportunities. As for supporting the regrading lobby, again the evidence is overwhelming and a read through the court judgement that settled the question indicates again that Twigg is not willing to let facts or details get in the way of partisan politics. In this case though, it is not simply his judgement about educational matters that looks weak, but his political judgement too. Labour’s failure in government to prevent grade inflation is something that even Twigg has admitted happened, so why support further grade inflation? Effectively Twigg has conceded that Labour got something wrong, but publicly shown that if given responsibility for education, he would continue to get it wrong in exactly the same way.

Now, these errors of judgement would be bad enough if they were isolated mistakes made despite a generally sensible approach to education. Unfortunately these snippets seem entirely consistent with Twigg’s general stance. He’s also been against the Ebacc and sniffy about academic subjects, favouring vocational options without confronting the difficult questions of who exactly should take them or why. While people obsess with the minutiae of structures, Twigg is setting out an agenda which would ensure that the worst aspect of our system, the low expectations in our comprehensives, becomes worse. Too often he sounds like he is defending the last Labour government’s education policy rather than setting out what the next one would do. Unfortunately, the last Labour government lost all direction on education policy after 2001, and so Twigg seems to be looking at a period of exceptional drift and weakness as if it was an alternative to a very assertive secretary of state who is willing to talk about standards in schools. Wasting time on the criticisms already being put forward by the education establishment, and unable to imagine a new direction has left Twigg with little to say of any interest. Gove’s greatest failure is probably that he hasn’t undone the harm of the previous nine years (such as the behaviour of OFSTED and the bureaucracy of performance management) yet Twigg can never make that attack. Too often Gove is left free to act like he speaks for the opposition, attacking the status quo and those in charge of education, while the man whose job it actually is to oppose, defends years of failure and demands that it be allowed to continue.

Update 17/8/2013 (am): Since writing this I have discovered that Michael Rosen has discontinued his involvement with the SWP and announced it on a blog 4 weeks ago.  I haven’t changed the text above as, at the time of the letter above, he would still have been directly involved.

Update 17/8/2013 (pm): Following some argument on Twitter with @educationlabour I will clarify here that when I say that Twigg’s letter “den[ied] the effectiveness of phonics” I mean exactly that. It suggested that other methods, presumably the crank methods of the co-signatories, should be used as well and that the phonics check would confuse children, something unlikely to happen if they had been taught phonics effectively. I am not claiming that Stephen Twigg has ever said he is against phonics. Indeed, it is normal for even the most ferocious phonics denialists (some of whom signed that letter) to claim that they are “not against phonics”, just as advocates of homeopathy and other magic often claim that they are providing a “complement” rather than a replacement for conventional medicine.

49 comments

  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  2. […] ago to lay out where I thought the education secretary had gone wrong. It will be balanced by “The case against Stephen Twigg” in the next day or […]


  3. Students who get a D grade in English are far from illiterate, just as those who get a C are not complete as writers or readers. The increasingly political management of that grade boundary should be challenged. Students who have comparable skills are being given different grades to serve arguments played out in the press and the courts. The exam boards are not able upholding consistent let alone absolute standards.


    • How much use English GCSE is now for identifying the literate (and illiterate) is certainly debatable, but I don’t see how it is possible to argue that giving grade C (or above) to three quarters of the cohort wouldn’t have made it worse. Your other complaint I agree with, standards weren’t consistent, but again handing out C grades to an extra 10% of the cohort would only have made this problem worse and would have been the strongest possible form of “political management”.


  4. It may help your readers if you specify which type of phonics you are talking about.


  5. The phonics check is confusing for chn as it uses none words which often resemble actual words – consequently chn will confuse one with the other and in so doing achieve a lower score. This is not to do with a proper teaching of phonics.


    • I would have thought that was the only way you can tell if a child has actually learnt to decode phonetically or is just guessing from what the word looks like. Far from being a problem, it is surely the whole point of the phonics check.


      • That assumes that phonics is the only strategy chn are using to make sense of text – which isn’t the case. Having a good grasp of phonics is essential – but your last comment highlights they Phonics check’s flaw.
        A young child can not be told – right when you are completing this check please only use phonic approaches.


        • Again, this doesn’t seem to be a flaw. It seems to be the point. The best way to teach reading is to teach kids to learn how to decode words phonetically and discourage guessing (which is what the alternative “strategies” usually amount to). That the phonics check tests the former, not the latter, is the whole point.


          • Phonics does teach chn to decode – which is very important – but chn do not decode familiar words when reading.
            Adults also read in this way an example being “Paris in the the Spring” – the brain reads it as one “the” – that example is not deciding – but illustrative of a point. You are a confident reader – do you decode text phonically or use sight recognition and word shape? Why you expect chn to approach text differently?


          • You now appear to be going through the standard phonics denialist arguments one at a time and I’m not sure what the point is. Do you really think that I’d grasp at the idea that the best way to teach reading is going to be based on what habits people pick up after they are fluent? Presumably you’d teach a child to write by asking them to produce their first novel? Fluency comes with practice, it can’t be taught first.


          • No, I am 100% in favour of the teaching of phonics – it is the test I disagree with as the methodology that under pins it is flawed for the reasons I have given.
            You appear to be arguing in favour of a test – which you have not administered but have read about.


  6. I think a child can be told to use phonic approaches only for the purposes of the check. When my first two learnt to read we used to play nonsense words – using phonics to decode a bunch of letters as words which sounded funny.

    It is clear from the evidence that phonics is the most effective way of teaching decoding for the vast majority of children, but it doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. There will still be a need for the use of other strategies for those few. I think it is a bit harsh to call them cranky! My third couldn’t learn decoding through phonics and I am very glad that special intervention programmes were used in his infants’ school for those few children for whom phonics was not working. He would have failed the phonics check miserably but I hope teachers are still allowed to use other strategies for such children and not persist with a method which is clearly not working in their case.

    As for Stephen Twigg I couldn’t agree more – and to think I stayed up to watch him beat Michael Portillo in that election all those years ago.


    • I call the methods for children who supposedly can’t learn phonics “cranky” because of the complete lack of evidence for them beyond the anecdotal. There are children who struggle to learn to read (although there are lesson of them if systematic synthetic phonics is used). They are usually diagnosed as dyslexic. But the most effective treatment for dyslexia appears to be more, and more intensive, practice with phonics not magic.


      • Apologies for not being more specific in outlining the exact techniques I was refering to. But I am intrigued by the fact that you seem to be a bit dismissive of anecdotal evidence – it is still evidence and I have often seen you argue in favour of accepting anecdotal evidence with regards to behaviour – the very point which first attracted me to reading this blog.

        What they did for my son and about 6 other children in a year (1) of 100 children was introduce a ‘writing intervention’ and stopped asking him to decode graphemes into phonemes. In other words instead of instructing the children to decode letters to sounds they helped the children code phonemes to graphemes by writing stories and then correcting their spellings. The children had to think more carefully about the sounds contained in a word. I could be wrong but my understanding from primary school teachers in this area is that SSP as it is being implemented is far more prescriptive and such an intervention could not be undertaken now in year 1. I have no idea if such an intervention is researched but would imagine it comes under the title of phoneme awareness which is researched and demonstrates good results.

        Just one last comment. I was under the impression that even with SSP as a decoding method there would still be times when children simply have to learn how the word is said and spelt. For example tough, cough and bough and plough. Both for myself and my children at that point look and say methods were used.


        • I am not an expert but the approach you are describing sounds like a linguistic phonics method. It has nothing to do with ‘mixed methods’ which is about encouraging the use of other contextual cues. SSP supporters would endorse linguistic phonics approaches. There are all sorts of programmes around that have emphasis on the sound to symbol relationship at their heart. There is generally a common front among the writers of these programmes to try and end the use of mixed methods, but there are distinct differences between these programmes.


        • What you describe seems perfectly compatible with SSP.

          With regard to the other points. I have defended the principle of listening to teachers to find out what schools are like. This is a bit different from accepting all anecdotal evidence at face value, even about the measurable effects of interventions, even when it flies in the face of 50 years of evidence. We have had decades to identify these kids for whom SSP doesn’t work, not to mention multiple attempts to determine whether kids ever have different “learning styles” in any context. Yet all we have are the same anecdotes, normally from people who gave up on SSP after the first attempt.

          With regard to words that may be harder to decode. There are, of course, words where there may be more than one obvious way to pronounce phonetically. However, this is not the same as saying there are words which must be learnt by look and say. No word is completely non-phonetic, and just because a grapheme has more than one possible pronunciation does not mean that those pronunciations cannot be taught and that the words using a given pronunciation cannot be learnt in that context. We often hear nonsense about “phonetic” and “non-phonetic” words. There really is no such thing. There may be words that are harder or easier to decode, but it seems unlikely that there is any word which is easier to learn without any reference to the phonetic content of its written form.

          Besides which, there is no point trying to come up with explanations of how SSP might not work, when there is no evidence that it doesn’t. Explanations should explain what is, not attempt to convince us of what isn’t.


  7. “100% in favour of the teaching of phonics”

    I believe I mentioned above that phonics denialists do tend to claim this nowadays. Certainly hard to square this with your previous comment about confident readers not using phonics.

    “it is the test I disagree with as the methodology that under pins it is flawed for the reasons I have given.”

    But those reasons don’t seem to be flaws if you don’t start from a position of denying that readers should be able to decode phonetically.

    “You appear to be arguing in favour of a test – which you have not administered but have read about.”

    Actually I’m arguing against bad arguments used against a test. I had no firm opinions on the test at all until it started to flush phonics denialists out of the woodwork. At that point I did begin to favour it, in much the same way as I’d probably be inclined to support a health policy if it resulted in doctors complaining that it forced them to practice medicine rather than use voodoo. If there are complaints about the phonics check that go beyond the fact that it requires kids to have learnt phonics then I’ll listen with an open mind, but so far the complaints against the check are just the usual complaints phonics denialists have against anything that would require them to teach systematic synthetic phonics and not guessing.


    • A test makes teachers teach properly????


      • It certainly seems to have been a motivator.


        • Does your argument over the phonics check have any shred of understanding attached to it – or are you simply being inflammatory?
          You are not arguing about phonics but a badly constructed test.
          A poor test does not reflect teaching of any kind.


          • I am arguing about phonics. Not really sure how I can make that any clearer.


          • No, you are arguing about a test – which is different.
            I am in favour of systematic teaching of phonics.
            Your sarcasm attempts to mask the fact that you don’t recognise a difference between a check which is badly constructed and an approach to decoding text.
            Chn who are confident readers attempt to make sense out of pseudo words as would you.


          • I am arguing about phonics. If the complaint about the test is that it will penalise children who guess when confronted with unfamiliar words rather than sound them out phonetically then that is not simply about the test, that is an argument against synthetic phonics in general.


          • When is the last time you worked with six year old chn? You have not administered the check – you have not taught young chn to read – what you know of the check is what you have read – which is limiting, so your understanding is limited.

            You desperately want to define the discussion in “McCarthy era” terms – in favour of phonics or phonics denialism – it sadly isn’t that simple. One can be in favour of phonics and know the check to be flawed.

            Young chn do not sound every single word out when reading – they decode unfamiliar words this way – that is called reading and fluency. The phonics check requires the chn to suspend this and resort to phonic decoding for all reading which is alien to them and so they struggle. We are talking about chn who are relatively confident readers at the time of the check.

            You are arguing for chn to approach something in a way to make a test function. This is not phonics denialism – this is experience of primary aged chn.


  8. “When is the last time you worked with six year old chn? You have not administered the check – you have not taught young chn to read – what you know of the check is what you have read – which is limiting, so your understanding is limited.”

    Which is why I limit myself to the basic factual point of what the evidence showed. No doubt experience of teaching small children to read would provide one with lots of insights that I don’t have. What it does not do is lend any weight to arguments based on fundamental misconceptions about phonics or reading. If somebody’s complaint about the phonics check assumes that, having learnt through systematic synthetic phonics, an able reader would guess unfamiliar words rather than sound them out phonetically, then that person is fundamentally confused about what those children should have been taught to do and fundamentally confused about what it is to be an able reader.

    “You desperately want to define the discussion in “McCarthy era” terms – in favour of phonics or phonics denialism – it sadly isn’t that simple. One can be in favour of phonics and know the check to be flawed.”

    Yes, but such a person would have to have an argument against the check that wasn’t also an argument against phonics. Otherwise saying “but I’m not against phonics” is like saying “but I’m not a racist”. I believe the Americans have a saying: “everything after ‘but’ is bullshit”.

    “Young chn do not sound every single word out when reading – they decode unfamiliar words this way – that is called reading and fluency. The phonics check requires the chn to suspend this and resort to phonic decoding for all reading”

    No it doesn’t. The nonsense words are unfamiliar so if what you say is true they should be decoding them.

    “which is alien to them and so they struggle. We are talking about chn who are relatively confident readers at the time of the check.

    You are arguing for chn to approach something in a way to make a test function. This is not phonics denialism – this is experience of primary aged chn.”

    This is not even a coherent argument now. You appear to have accepted that children should be decoding unfamiliar words using phonics. That is all the justification anyone needs for including the nonsense words in the phonics check.


    • Have you seen a Phonics screening check?
      This year’s or last year’s?


      • The check being carried out or the question paper?

        Hang on, why am I even asking this? I think I have said enough times that it was the phonics denialist argument against the phonics check that I was discussing here, not the phonics check itself. I think you need to defend that argument and stop changing the subject to what you want to discuss.


        • Ha! You are answering because you are an argumentative so and so – and like arguing.
          Though actually you haven’t answered – it is relevant and supports a point. So have you seen either of the checks?


          • I believe I just asked you what you meant by that. You do seem to be ignoring everything I say.


          • I am sorry, the check as sat by the children.


          • I have not observed the check being sat. Does this have anything to do with anything?


          • Obviously not.


          • So you are defending a check you have not seen, to age group you have not taught or understand and you do this with confidence?


          • Obviously not.


          • That said and the phonics check aside – this is a good blog post – which I broadly agree with. It would be churlish to say otherwise.


  9. I am confused, is the argument your commenter is making above really that the phonics check is a bad test, because if children aren’t using phonics effectively, they will get it wrong? There must be something more to it than that? Surely nobody would make such an embarrassingly incoherent argument in public?


  10. Reblogged this on Jeez, not you again! and commented:
    Does Twigg oppose Gove when he is right, and agree with him when he is wrong? Erros of judgement and evidence seem to be on Twigg’s agenda (and Gove’s for that matter!)


  11. […] Teaching in British schools « The Case against Stephen Twigg […]


  12. […] fool’s errand to try and argue with anything that Old Andrew says, for fear of being called a phonics denialist, Gorilla, or enemy of promise reinforcing low expectations in the face of “all the […]


  13. […] The Case Against Stephen Twigg. Whilst the main focus has been to lambast Michael Gove and his army at the DofE, Stephen Twigg has […]


  14. http://www.phonicsinternational.com/reedy_response.pdf

    I apologise that this posting is not about the Twigg issue – although in some ways it is as the piece above indicates the lack of shared understanding amongst the teaching profession itself – and amongst those in apparent positions of authority in education such as Twigg.

    I hope this is helpful for Chris to clarify some of the issues about the phonics check. I know of Reception teachers who have used the words of the check with their four and five year olds and achieved fantastic results – often the only words not decoded correctly were the split digraph words the code for which the children had not yet been taught.

    The check is really not a big deal when approached professionally but it is very important for our professional development. It is HUGELY important to demonstrate that the teaching profession is all over the place in terms of the knowledge and understanding of reading instruction.

    Kind regards,


  15. In my many decades of teaching experience I have encountered, virtually no child that could not learn phonics although I have met, and still meet among my Skype pupils, many who cannot learn them by ritual teaching means. Equally,I have met children who learned to read without formal instruction of any kind.

    I am very keen to find references which identify individuals or groups who could be described as ‘phonics denialists’ Although I find them referred to quite often in debates, I have never had them identified specifically. I would appreciate any help anyone is able to give in locating specific references.


    • Don’t be silly. They aren’t hard to find. Start with Michael Rosen, then look for people who RT his stuff on Twitter.


  16. […] wish I could say this sort of incoherence was a rare error from Twigg, but, as I described here, he had a habit of opportunistically joining in with criticisms of Gove. This was not the first […]


  17. […] wish I could say this sort of incoherence was a rare error from Twigg, but, as I described here, he had a habit of opportunistically joining in with criticisms of Gove. This was not the first […]


  18. […] The Case Against Stephen Twigg. Whilst the main focus has been to lambast Michael Gove and his army at the DofE, Stephen Twigg has […]


  19. […] The Case Against Stephen Twigg. Whilst the main focus has been to lambast Michael Gove and his army at the DofE, Stephen Twigg has […]



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