Archive for July, 2014


Goodbye, Mr Gove

July 15, 2014

I won’t say this is the post I never wanted to write, because I would have written a post with this title more than happily if Michael Gove’s departure had been the result of an incoming Labour government. While I did have some worries that a Labour government would see a return to the complete dominance of progressive orthodoxy in education, I was pessimistic about both the chances of my party winning and the chances of a re-elected Tory government, with a different education secretary, being any different in that respect. The one thing I have noticed most about the education system is that it is barely under political control. The only politicians whoever seemed to be in charge while in office were Gove and Blunkett, and both of them had years of opposition to study the brief and four years in office. Moreover, the changes Blunkett began soon dissolved (sometimes while he was still in office) and were replaced by policies of the opposite stripe with no public debate. Almost any change of education secretary seemed almost guaranteed to lead to a drift back to the education establishment calling the shots.

And that is what I now expect. Not because I know anything about the new education secretary Nicky Morgan. Like most people I have no idea who she is. I do know, however, that she has never had education as her brief . I do know she is not a proven, powerful figure in the party or government. I do know that education secretary is a position nobody gets the hang of just by learning it while doing the job. As far as I can tell her appointment is likely to indicate that education will not be a political priority for the government between now and the election. It is being neutralised as an issue and she is likely to face an expectation from above to create no waves. The message sent by this is that the revolution is over. The system is back to normal.

As I implied above, I don’t expect Gove’s reforms to have made a permanent difference to the system. Those in positions of influence, who were most in sympathy with his agenda, will – no doubt – gradually be replaced by establishment figures over time. Reform of exams and teacher training will probably not be completed properly. The system has been shaken up a bit, but not replaced, and will soon settle back to normality.

The one place where Gove may have made permanent change is in the Conservative Party. There used to be little interest in state education there, beyond ideas about increasing selection, rooting out leftist influence and reducing the power of local authorities. Gove has made it possible for a Conservative politician to espouse the comprehensive principle and argue over the education of the worst off. It has gone from being an area, like health, where talking about it could only benefit the Labour Party, to one where a Conservative politician could become famous (if not loved) and repeatedly see off his opposite numbers.

As for his weaknesses, I’ve never seen Gove’s general willingness to cause a row to be a weakness, more of a necessity. Education is full of those who have exercised power without being challenged. However, I fear he did go far too far in the Trojan Horse row. By over-reacting to a mix of real, but unexceptional, problems and outright smears he helped make one of his own success stories into a gift for those who would see a monolithic system with no diversity at all, while at the same time causing a public row with one of his own colleagues. This may have been the step too far that finished him off, but it would be a real shame if education now dropped off the agenda. My one hope is that freed of the need to constantly react to Gove, this might actually be an opportunity for Tristram Hunt to show some of the potential that he had a few years ago, that has unfortunately been unrealised. He now faces an inexperienced opposite number and a government that has lost its nerve. Labour has a chance, for the first time in years, to be the party of high standards for all instead of comfortable acceptance of orthodoxy. Let’s hope they take it.


Towards a Blue Labour Agenda on Schools Part 1

July 13, 2014

Last weekend I went to the Blue Labour Midlands Seminar for a day of discussion about “Blue Labour” ideas. Blue Labour is the movement that developed out of the ideas of Lord Glasman. Despite Glasman being an academic and and member of the House of Lords, the core Blue Labour ideas, roughly speaking, revolve around the idea of a Labour party rooted in working class communities (including faith communities) rather than in Westminster and the chattering classes. I intend to blog about what ideas were discussed that were most relevant to education debate in the next day or two. However, I remembered that I had already written about this for the now defunct “Old Politics” blog in a response to another blogpost that also is no longer available.

I have to give a few warnings first. I wrote this in July 2011 for a political blogger. As such, it is more political than my usual comments and for an audience not familiar with my arguments. Also, I clearly was more prone to jargon then than I am now, and I apologise in advance for the phrase “managerialist quasi-market” which sounds like the sort of thing that I’d criticise the BERA social justice blog for using . At least one link won’t work (but I haven’t edited it out). If you are more interested in the education discussion than the politics, please don’t be put off by the first few paragraphs, it does become easier to read.



So far, schools are an area where Blue Labour appears to have been least able to make a contribution to policy. Blue Labour is sceptical of the possibility that the paternalistic middle classes can genuinely meet the interests of the working class through public spending on the part of the state. The British state school system is a public service which is dominated by middle class interests, beliefs and concerns, yet decisive in its power over the interests and aspirations of the working class in a way that is the antithesis of Blue Labour thinking. However, in this case, Blue Labour cannot even appeal for rescue to a pre-welfare state tradition of education, because while there may be positive things to be said about the contribution of church schools, workers education societies and other forms of education that existed independently of the state in the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century, nobody can suggest that these bodies were not either equally paternalistic or equally inadequate at empowering the mass of the working class.

That said, a scepticism about the existence of a state education system is not a credible position for Blue Labour thinkers either. The middle classes desire education for themselves and are willing to pay for it. The withdrawal of the state from the education system would not create comprehensive community-run civil institutions, it would create a free market in which the lion’s share of the good of education was captured by the well-off with a small amount saved for the most able.

Indeed, perhaps the easiest argument that can be made about a Blue Labour position on education is that it would object to the commodification of education, whether through a free market or a managerialist quasi-market, in which parents and children simply become customers of educational service providers. Blue Labour is in a position to suggest an increase in the influence of communities on education, for instance, Maurice Glasman suggested the following administrative changes:

…what Blue Labour would say is that there should be a third, a third, a third. A third of power with parents, so that the schools are genuinely places where they have power over the education for their children; a third with the teachers so that we can really honour the vocation and expertise of teachers and then a third with the funder, whether that would be the local authority or the state. A third, a third, a third.

Given the gulf that exists between teachers and governors, and often between parents and the parental representatives on governing bodies, this idea could well be an improvement on the status quo. However, it leaves untouched the difficult issues of schooling: the questions of what should be taught to whom and where. In the absence of Blue Labour having any obvious policy positions on this, we have seen a couple of attempts to navigate a Blue Labour direction in schools policy, where those involved have simply tied themselves to existing masts.

Firstly, in his chapter of “The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox” James Purnell declared (admittedly with some caveats which I have not quoted):

Mutuality, reciprocity, and organization are good guides to what is insufficient about empowerment. But they do not replace it. For example, they’re not a guide to renewing education policy. In fact, in education, we need to go further in a New Labour direction, not turn around… people should be able to choose a school for their child

More recently, in their article [no longer available] on the Blue Labour Blog two ex-teachers Jim O’Connell-Lauder and Jamie Audsley argued for a social engineering model of schooling, actually using the phrase “a tool of social justice” and suggesting that individuals (parents, children and even teachers) can, through reforming schools into democratic institutions, be transformed into “democratic citizens”.

This notion of schooling, where the state and its enlightened administrators decide what type of people the masses should become is an extension of the Every Child Matters agenda that became dominant in the later years of the last Labour government, which in turn was simply a new manifestation of the progressive tradition in education, where academic aims are side-lined by political, cultural, social or emotional concerns. It is also in the opposite direction to Blue Labour’s confidence in the existing values of working class communities, and scepticism of middle class liberal values.

So, having set out how little Blue Labour has so far been able to say about education, where do we go from here? At the very least, perhaps the following questions are worth considering (and I make no pretence that these questions don’t heavily reflect my own personal concerns and beliefs about education):

1) How can we ensure that the educational outcomes for working class children are not simply what middle class professionals think are appropriate for “children like these”? Much educational debate, for instance the debate over selection, or over the value of qualifications, assumes that there is a significant class of usually working class “non-academic” children who must be appreciated for being different rather than given greater opportunity to succeed. Not everyone can become a professor at Oxford, but it should not be the role of Labour politicians to cap working class aspirations.

2) How do attempts to “include” badly behaved children in the classroom, regardless of their behaviour, reflect the values of working class communities? If Blue Labour respects the conservatism of working class parents, then there can be little reason for letting a child from a disciplined home environment, where the authority of adults is respected, endure the chaos of a permissive school environment run by middle class liberals where poor behaviour by a child is seen as a social or emotional problem to be treated therapeutically, rather than an attack on the interests of other children.

3) How can Blue Labour change the top-down culture of schools? While some comment has been made about central government initiatives that create paperwork or interfere with school management, very little attention has been given to the way in which classroom teachers are managed. How many teachers in a school should have a management responsibility? How much of a teacher’s work should be open to continual scrutiny by managers?

4) How much should teachers and schools be concerning themselves with non-academic aspects of children’s lives? Blue Labour criticises the bureaucratic welfare state, and should be the first critic of schools where the dominant culture brings to mind management consultants trying to frustrate social workers, rather than that of an academic institution.



Revisiting the Debate Over the Davis Phonics Pamphlet: Part 3

July 8, 2014

In this final post on the debate over Andrew Davis’ phonics pamphlet I respond to the arguments addressed to me in this post by David Aldridge. There are quite a few arguments (and points) in that post (one might even suggest more than in the original pamphlet) and I will attempt to answer them in turn.

1) There is a “false analogy set up between teaching methods (and ways of gathering the evidence that they work) and clinical trials and similar ways of gathering evidence about, say, medical interventions or agricultural fertilisers”.

I pointed out last time that this is not Davis’s argument. It is also lacking as a response to me given that I have more than once disagreed with simply trying to ape medical research too closely (for instance here and here). Regardless, the reason we should listen to the empirical evidence on phonics is not because it is exactly the same as other forms of research, but because it consistently gets the same result. The evidence tells us that whenever we look into the matter, we find (with a good degree of reliability) that the more children are taught with phonics, and the less they are encouraged to guess words from other information, the better they end up being able to read. This is all we really need it to tell us. As with Davis’s actual argument, Aldridge’s is an argument that empirical research could not ever tell us what it has already told us. Engaging too directly with the argument for why phonics research wouldn’t work would be like going back to look for flaws in the arguments of those who said flying machines could never be built. We know the argument is wrong. The only thing that makes Aldridge’s argument seem vaguely more plausible is that Davis’s argument implied that the evidence couldn’t exist, whereas Aldridge implied that it cannot be of the right type. However, neither’s descriptions of the inevitable flaws in the evidence can account for the evidence that has been found. Davis’s argument would lead us to believe no evidence exists. Aldridge’s argument would lead us to believe that the evidence could not reliably tell us anything one way or the other. Both are evidently wrong.

2) Systematic Synthetic Phonics is “exclusivist” and my position on this “is not abundantly clear” as I have both “strongly criticised ‘mixed methods’ approaches” and suggested that SSP does not prevent use of certain other techniques in the teaching of reading.

The confusion here probably comes from being unfamiliar with Systematic Synthetic Phonics. SSP is about learning to decode written words using the phonetic information in them. This is incompatible with methods of identifying words that ignore some or all of the phonetic information. So this rules out trying to recall the whole word (or a large chunk of a word) as if it was a hieroglyph. It prevents guessing what a word says from the context rather than decoding it. It doesn’t allow for partially decoding a word and guessing the remaining parts. It would discourage the teaching of vague “meaning-getting” skills that are meant to compensate for those whose decoding is so lacking in fluency that they cannot decode and pay attention to meaning at the same time. (If I have opposed “comprehension strategies” before, it is this I was objecting to). It does not, however, rule out any part of learning to read that doesn’t discourage paying attention to phonics. So there is no prohibition on improving vocabulary (including finding out about the meaning of words). It doesn’t rule out telling stories. It doesn’t ban books with pictures in, as long as they are not used to guess what words in the text say.  It positively encourages (and includes) working to be able to distinguish phonemes in spoken language. Now the principle here is not difficult and I’m able to grasp it as a layman. If a “method” involves either learning or guessing words using something other than the phonetic information in the word (thereby discouraging use of SSP) then it has no place in SSP, but that is all that is “exclusivist” about SSP. The confusion comes from the habit denialists have of rebranding guessing and whole word learning as things like “mixed methods” or “balanced literacy”. If denialists hadn’t suggesting that encouraging readers to guess more, and decode less, was merely adding extra tools to be used to decode then I don’t think phonics would ever have been seen as “exclusivist”. This is not some deep ideological objection to spending time in the primary classroom on anything but phonics, it’s just the same sort of practical objection that would stop a teacher handing out calculators in the middle of a mental arithmetic test. If you genuinely favour the teaching of phonics, why would you suddenly say “stop decoding and guess”?

3) I defend “a one size fits all approach to teaching”as if I see “so-called ‘learning styles’ as the obvious alternative”.

This is one of those contentious issues in all types of discussion in teaching. In so many debates any suggestion that there is a wrong way to teach something is immediately faced with the suggestion that it is the right way for some particular child or group of children. On the face of it, the flaw with making this suggestion indiscriminately is obvious. Some methods are just not going to work, or just not work particularly well, for anyone. Beyond that there is the disturbing possibility that false assumptions about how certain types of child will require something different can lower expectations in line with existing prejudices. It is also an easy way to blame a teacher when a child doesn’t learn something if it can be claimed that every child can learn everything easily providing the correct method is used. It is also highly lucrative to sell silly gimmicks that will enable teachers to reach those students who are hardest to teach and differences in “learning styles” are one explanation used to justify those gimmicks.

Now, these considerations (which do include the nonsense of “learning styles”) indicate reasons why I think the burden of proof over suggestions that certain students need different teaching methods should be with those making the suggestions. There are, however, some undeniable differences between children. Some children have learning difficulties. Capacity of working memory and other cognitive abilities will differ between children. Children also vary in their prior knowledge. I have no problem in taking account of any of these. The contention appears to be over how much variation in teaching should be allowed in light of these differences. Nobody can deny that SSP will differ in effectiveness between children. Some children seem to learn to read with little support; others really struggle. Different methods of teaching might be used to address some of these differences. However, if one wishes to use this as an argument against SSP working best for all, the claim would have to be that some children benefit from methods, like learning whole words or guessing from context, which ignore phonetic information and discourage decoding. It is this that there seems to be a remarkable lack of evidence for.

There is not even consistency in the claims about which children the alleged exceptions to the effectiveness of SSP apply to. When the denialists were at the height of their power SSP was relegated to being a method for those with dyslexia. Now, I more often hear it claimed that it is those with dyslexia who most require the denialist methods instead of phonics. Admittedly, I also hear it claimed that phonics is unnecessary for the most able readers (here, at least, there is a plausible chance that they might have absorbed a large amount of phonic knowledge before anyone taught it to them explicitly making some phonics instruction redundant). Given the confusion, it seems better to assume that children learning the same system of writing will require the same knowledge of phonics, unless there is good evidence to the contrary, and being either faster or slower to learn than other children should not be considered evidence of needing the denialist methods, only more or less time spent on phonics instruction.

 4) The phonics check will force teachers to concentrate “on the method of synthetic phonics rather than another approach or combination of approaches that might equally or better promote their success with reading but will not be relevant to the phonics check”.

This one is simply begging the question. The phonics check will put teachers under pressure to teach phonics effectively. This may well deter methods that are alleged to be a form of phonics teaching but which don’t actually result in good phonics knowledge. It will also deter methods of teaching reading that ignore the evidence on phonics. Neither of these is a bad thing, unless you have already made the decision to ignore the evidence or to teach phonics ineffectively.

5) The argument that teachers should become consumers of educational research in order to identify the ‘best’ method for achieving a particular educational outcome, so that they can then employ this method across the board, neither empowers teachers nor improves the educational experience of their students.

This strikes me as missing the point of “evidence-based” teaching. The reason that many teachers are interested in research is not to create a monolithic list of activities that must be carried out in order to teach. We’ve seen that doesn’t work. It is to protect us from such demands. To read the debate on phonics you’d think there was never an era when phonics teaching was marginalised or pushed out. You’d think that no phonics denialist ever had power or influence and no teacher was ever forced to use denialist methods. In reality, there’s no shortage of stories from the 80s and 90s of teachers using SSP having to hide what they are doing from their managers. There are plenty of people who became marginalised because they spoke out against the phonics denialist orthodoxy. There was no freedom to skip the “Searchlights” model of the NLS. We are still suffering from their apparently exclusive domination of primary teacher training in our universities and many sensible people leave teacher training wedded to bizarre notions like the belief that “reading” is a synonym for “comprehension” or the idea that an enthusiasm for books must always precede the ability to read them.

Teachers will always be under pressure to teach a particular way, even if it is from fashion, training and school level pressure rather than national policy. When I argue for an evidence-based profession, I am arguing that teachers should know the evidence and that the trump card when resisting pressure to teach in a particular way is being able to say “but the evidence shows this is not a good idea” without it getting you singled out as a troublemaker. I believe our professional judgement will hold more sway if it is professional judgement backed up by evidence and rational argument. If anything has brought about the statutory phonics check it is teachers ignoring the evidence on phonics or, worse, pretending to teach “phonics” while actually teaching children to guess rather than decode. I don’t want evidence-based practice to create a new orthodoxy, I want it to establish the rules by which orthodoxies can be resisted and overthrown. Evidence will never tell us exactly how to teach, but it will expose when we are mistaken or, worse, when we are dishonest. While we should have plenty of freedom to make our own decisions, we should not be arguing for the principle of making decisions based on ignorance or irrationality. I don’t want the freedom to teach by telepathy or to encourage children to rub their brain buttons. I want the freedom to make informed and reasonable judgements and that requires an informed and reasonable profession.


Revisiting the Debate Over the Davis Phonics Pamphlet: Part 2

July 3, 2014

In this post from yesterday I went over the problems with Andrew Davis’ pamphlet on phonics. It had media publicity at the time of its publication for a reference to phonics teaching being “almost a form of abuse” and argued that we should ignore the research on systematic synthetic phonics because we could not identify whether those methods have actually been used.

An obviously incoherent argument mixed with a lack of any evidence, and a tasteless comparison with child abuse, would, of course, be an embarrassment to anyone engaging in a serious debate. But denialists do need to be able to refer to texts by educationalists in order to give the impression of intellectual legitimacy to their position. While I don’t want to go over Twitter discussions about the pamphlet (suffice to say many of its most ardent admirers seem unfamiliar with its content) it’s worth commenting on a couple of blogposts which attempted to defend it. The first is here. In it, the obvious criticisms that its claims are unsupported with evidence, and in defiance of the evidence, are defended by an appeal to the nature of philosophy:

However, empirical and philosophical questions have important differences between them which are the subject of this essay. Andrew Davis is a philosopher. The type and scope of his research is defined by the limits of his discipline. This is also my response to the third objection [the claim the pamphlet was mere speculation]: he is a philosopher, this work is theory. Therefore, it is not “speculative” to write what one thinks because in this field what one thinks is precisely the research itself. When Davis says what he has written is the result of three years’ work we have no reason to doubt him unless we believe that mental work is not meaningful or real, and if we believe that then quite frankly we should never be anywhere near a classroom.

The idea that the abstract nature of philosophy means that any claim, no matter how at odds with evidence, can be seriously entertained is one I would associate more with critics than supporters of philosophy. For instance, Lawrence Krauss’s claim that “philosophy used to have content” which science has gradually taken away paints philosophy as some kind of abstract nonsense of no consequence to those who study the real world. While I am quite happy with the idea of philosophy consisting of thought and reasoning rather than empirical evidence, philosophy is still meant to be thought about something. A philosopher of science will need to study some science and they would not claim, that whatever experiments have been conducted they cannot provide evidence of gravity. A philosopher of history will need to study some history and they would not claim that whatever books historians have written, none of them could provide grounds for saying the battle of Waterloo happened. A philosopher of law will need to study some law and would not claim that, whatever laws have been passed, none of them could prohibit burglary. The correct way to philosophise about the teaching of reading involves first studying how we teach children to read, not claiming that it has never actually been studied. An argument that it cannot be studied does not create a gap for philosophy to fill, it makes philosophical consideration as impossible as any other type. Davis’ argument that we can never isolate a specific way of teaching reading does not simply prevent the possibility of empirically measuring the effectiveness of the method, it also prevents us identifying any features of a reading method that a philosopher could reasonably consider. A teaching method that is so lacking in distinct features or consequences that we cannot identify it when we use it or observe it, is also a teaching method that we cannot imagine using and whose consequences no philosopher can deduce. If the ample evidence that synthetic phonics is the most effective method of teaching children to read is “a fantasy”, then how much more fantastic is the evidence-free claim that it is almost a form of abuse?

Another blogger, Dave Aldridge, tries a different defence. Instead of defending the actual pamphlet he defends an imagined, less extreme version of the pamphlet. The actual pamphlet contains a number of  claims about it being impossible to observe or identify the teaching of synthetic phonics, some of which I quoted last time, but just to be thorough I will list examples here.

In the editors’ introduction, the argument is summarised with phrases such as:

Whatever it is that empirical researchers take themselves to be doing when they investigate synthetic phonics, he maintains, they are not investigating a specifiable method of teaching reading… there are no such things as specifiable methods of teaching.

In the author’s overview he writes:

 I am going to argue that research into the teaching of reading involves some fantasies. These take the form of imagining that specific teaching methods could be identified, and that their efficacy would be open to empirical investigation.

In the outline of the argument he writes that one of the contributions of the book “is to show that much of the research purporting to support any one ‘method’ of teaching reading is flawed in principle” and that in sketching out the various ways to teach reading:

My point… is not to offer a definitive account or typology, but rather to question the very possibility of classifying reading strategies in any meaningful way. I am not assuming that the approaches described are necessarily independent of each other. Indeed, I contend that when examined in any kind of depth, none of them can, or should have, any clear and coherent identity

In the chapter giving the fullest justification of this argument Davis claims to argue “that certain types of empirical research into strategies for teaching reading are … based on fantasies of specifiable teaching interventions…”.

Yet, despite this ample evidence that Davis is indeed claiming that specific teaching methods, and synthetic phonics teaching in particular, cannot be identified, Aldridge instead claims that:

Davis’s argument rests not so much on the non-existence of method as the false analogy set up between teaching methods (and ways of gathering the evidence that they work) and clinical trials and similar ways of gathering evidence about, say, medical interventions or agricultural fertilisers.

Aldridge then attempts to argue for the much weaker claim that the evidence for phonics cannot be of the standard of these other types of research. While Davis did briefly assert that his arguments for ignoring the research evidence showed that evaluating teaching methods was different to testing drugs or fertilisers, his argument at no point hinged on the reverse implication, i.e. that if teaching methods are different to drugs then they cannot be evaluated. If this argument has not been made then no amount of differences between types of research can be used to support Davis’s claims. While this new argument may be of interest, and I hope to deal with it later, it does not actually match the argument of the pamphlet which remains as far-fetched and incoherent as ever.

Much of what remains in Aldridge’s post (and a subsequent post) is directed at me, rather than the discussion of Davis’ pamphlet in general, so I will hope to deal with it in a separate post.


Revisiting the Debate Over the Davis Phonics Pamphlet: Part 1

July 2, 2014

According to this article on denialism in public health, one of the tactics most often used by denialists is the use of:

…individuals who purport to be experts in a particular area but whose views are entirely inconsistent with established knowledge. They have been used extensively by the tobacco industry since 1974, when a senior executive with R J Reynolds devised a system to score scientists working on tobacco in relation to the extent to which they were supportive of the industry’s position. The industry embraced this concept enthusiastically in the 1980s when a senior executive from Philip Morris developed a strategy to recruit such scientists (referring to them as ‘Whitecoats’) to help counteract the growing evidence on the harmful effects of second-hand smoke. This activity was largely undertaken through front organizations whose links with the tobacco industry were concealed, but under the direction of law firms acting on behalf of the tobacco industry. In some countries, such as Germany, the industry created complex and influential networks, allowing it to delay the implementation of tobacco control policies for many years.In 1998, the American Petroleum Institute developed a Global Climate Science Communications Plan, involving the recruitment of ‘scientists who share the industry’s views of climate science [who can] help convince journalists, politicians and the public that the risk of global warming is too uncertain to justify controls on greenhouse gases’. However, this is not limited to the private sector; the administration of President George W Bush was characterized by the promotion of those whose views were based on their religious beliefs or corporate affiliations, such as the advisor on reproductive health to the Food and Drug Administration who saw prayer and bible reading as the answer to premenstrual syndrome. A related phenomenon is the marginalization of real experts, in some cases through an alliance between industry and government, as when ExxonMobil successfully opposed the reappointment by the US government of the chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Phonics denialists often use a similar tactic. So much so that you can often predict which “authorities” they will end up quoting. Perhaps Stephen Krashen, an American professor who is reported to have claimed “[A]ny child exposed to comprehensible print will learn to read, barring severe neurological or emotional problems”. Perhaps one or all of of the trio Torgerson, Brooks and Hall who managed to do a review of the evidence on phonics which rejected all but 4 of the studies on reading comprehension and then concluded that what remained was insufficient to support the consensus that phonics teaching benefited comprehension. Perhaps Michael Rosen, the children’s author who described phonics as “barking at print”. Perhaps Henrietta Dombey, another educationalist, who, despite not being any kind of neurologist, gave us her interpretation of brain scans as part of an argument against phonics. The same denialist organisations will also pop up again and again, particularly NATE and UKLA. There’s no shortage of people with opinions that are against phonics, often with highly respected positions in the education establishment, but with an utter lack of good evidence for those opinions. While some denialists will catch you out (for instance, Dr Mary Bousted pretending her PhD was about phonics) mostly you encounter the same people and sources again and again.

The latest “go to” expert without evidence for the phonics denialists is Andrew Davis. Another educationalist (although as I understand it, this time with a maths background)  he wrote a pamphlet for the once prestigious Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain. This received some publicity at the time of publication for the sensationalist claim that teaching a child with systematic synthetic phonics was “almost a form of abuse”.  A recent letter in the TES (admittedly one whose signatories include Davis himself, Brooks, Torgerson, and representatives of UKLA and NATE) cited it and started the discussion going again, so I thought I’d take the time to look at it. However, it turned out I had already discussed it here. In that post I noted Davis’s main argument:

In this short book I am going to argue that research into the teaching of reading involves some fantasies. These take the form of imagining that specific teaching methods could be identified, and that their efficacy would be open to empirical investigation. I show that if any schools were actually implementing such strategies, the adults responsible would have abdicated their role as teachers. In reality, implementations of SP in any one school will not and should not precisely resemble those in other schools and in any case, current research into SP ‘effectiveness’ is not informed by a detailed blow by blow description of what actually happens in the classrooms concerned. Hence, it is never really made clear what the research is actually investigating. If teachers are actually teaching, there will be and should be nothing common to all SP programmes. The effects of drugs or fertilisilisers can, of course, be investigated using orthodox scientific methodologies, but we lack the equivalent here in terms of teaching approaches.

I then responded to this argument:

Now, the limits of scientific methods to isolate and evaluate what happens in the classroom is a real issue. I’m certainly sceptical about a lot of education research for that reason. However, the claim that we could never, even in theory, objectively evaluate a teaching method is as extreme a denial of science as anything you will hear from homeopaths or creationists (who are also often prone to claim that science cannot hope judge their claims). The claim that all the research in an entire field (not just the hundreds of studies on phonics, because this argument applies equally to all teaching methods) is a particularly extreme one. It entails that all those who have conducted empirical research in teaching methods were mistaken, and all those who found statistically significant results were deluded. Not only that, but if they were to test more extreme cases, say the efficacy of teaching by telepathy, their results would still be invalid and teachers would be fully entitled to teach telepathically. To dismiss empirical research on this scale is as extreme as dismissing all the evidence of climate change, in fact it is pretty much the same argument, that we cannot aggregate data, that climate change denialists use.

As a note, I should probably add that the defence could be made that the author, despite using an argument that could be applied to all research into teaching methods, actually meant to treat phonics as a special case; that it is only in the case of phonics or perhaps synthetic phonics specifically that researchers would have no idea what method was being used. But if it is inherently impossible to identify the teaching methods used as phonics, or synthetic phonics, why write a pamphlet condemning a policy encouraging synthetic phonics? If the teaching method is indistinguishable from other methods, it cannot possibly be enforced. The policy would be meaningless, and can safely be ignored. The argument assumes the very thing that would make the argument irrelevant. You cannot oppose the imposition of a teaching method by arguing that there is no method being imposed.

I also pursued this with Davis himself on the TES forum here (where he posts as “ded6ajd”) but couldn’t get a clear argument from him  He admitted his argument would cast doubt on more teaching methods than just systematic synthetic phonics, but he wouldn’t identify clearly where we could draw the line on which teaching methods were observable and which weren’t, or identify the wider consequences of his claim.

The problem is not simply that Davis has speculated but not found new evidence (although that does invalidate some of the uses this pamphlet is put to in arguments), it is that he has rejected existing evidence because of a speculation. The possibility that it is impossible to objectively evaluate a teaching method is not one which can reasonably be entertained without paying due attention to the examples in the real world of people objectively evaluating teaching methods. Apparently without considering the claims of a single study, Davis, in the words of the editor, concludes that “[w]hatever it is that empirical researchers take themselves to be doing when they investigate synthetic phonics … they are not investigating a specifiable method of teaching reading”. Davis’s argument is to claim that research methods which have already worked in practice would not work in theory. Just as speculation against the possibility of space flight might be considered flawed in light of the apparent existence of space shuttles, the speculation that there can be no actual evidence for phonics is flawed in light of the existence of evidence for phonics. All the speculation in the world that we cannot attempt to evaluate phonics is worthless in face of the fact people have evaluated phonics.

Of course, while the extreme nature of the claim should be highlighted, and it justifes the use of the word “denialist” to describe the argument, an extreme position could still be correct. Unfortunately, this mistake is not made in isolation. It is part of a pamphlet which argues against the imposition of teaching methods, particularly the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics. As I argued above, if teaching methods (or even just the methods of teaching reading) cannot be identified then they cannot be imposed, for there can be no possible consequence for not implementing them. Nor can the claim that teaching synthetic phonics is “almost a form of abuse” be squared with the picture painted of an invisible, undetectable method. I suspect that if Davis truly believed that teaching methods were as unidentifiable as he claimed, he wouldn’t concern himself with the detail of primary literacy policy, he would be considering the consequences of this insight for the whole system. How much of what is done in education assumes that teachers and observer can identify what method they are using? Phonics is a minor detail if teachers are genuinely that ignorant of their actions.

There are other claims and material in the pamphlet that I could have explored. There is plenty of the usual denialist misconceptions about the nature of reading and meaning, and attempts to rebrand the usual denialist methods as another brand of phonics, but it is this self-defeating argument which (other than a citation of Torgerson et al by the editor in the introduction) is the only real attempt to address the empirical evidence on phonics. This, perhaps, misled me to think that nobody would actually pay much attention to this pamphlet, but it has been cited again and again in online debate and there have been attempts to defend it from the obvious criticisms.

In part 2 I will address some blogposts defending this pamphlet.

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