The main contributors to the seminar, beside Margaret herself, were Professor Sue Ellis of Strathclyde University, Professor Terry Wrigley Visiting Professor at Northumbria University and Professor Greg Brooks from Sheffield University. Given that Margaret herself is a Visiting Professor at Newman University and Emeritus Professor at the University of Birmingham, you can see that this was quite a heavyweight corpus we were having the privilege of hearing from and engaging with. One of the things that binds all of them together is their commitment to research and the use of data, especially to inform practice in the early years of education, and the development of literacy in young learners.
After a brief introduction and welcome from Professor Rowena Arshad, Head of School at Moray House, Sue Ellis took over as chair for the seminar. As part of her introduction Sue wanted to make three key points. The first was that good academic research should be used to interrogate all options, and looks at all of the factors that might be at play, not just some or one of them. Secondly, she cautioned that whatever our stance or point of view in regards to the debate around phonics and their use, classrooms should never be used, or become, battlegrounds fought over by different factions. Her third and final point was, that everyone should know the limitations of their 'evidence'. The evidence is never just 'black or white' in how it can be interpreted or used.
Having been given those words of caution, Margaret now spoke about both her books and why she thought they were needed at the current time. She started by telling us that, through Freedom of Information requests she had discovered that the government in England, through the DfE, had spent no less than £46 million in just eighteen months on the purchase of commercial Phonics resources for schools, and that over half of that had gone to one individual and their company who acted as an 'unpaid advisor' to government! What particularly raised Margaret's hackles was the continued assertion by Nick Gibb, and others, that the statutory requirement, and mandatory expectation that all young learners in England should be taught Synthetic Phonics as the 'first, fast and only' route to successful literacy performance, and that this was 'evidence informed'.
In Northern Ireland (6th in PIRLS) when pupils meet unfamiliar words they are encouraged to use a 'range of strategies to decode them'. Children are also encouraged to use their 'current knowledge of the phonetic code while cross-checking with meaning.' In the Republic of Ireland (4th in PIRLS) the approach adopted is one of mixed phonics, along with sentence and textual focus. His colleague in the republic confirmed that experiences were used to support emergent literacy in early childhood, with a consistent emphasis on oral language, in the context of play. Emphasis was given to both word identification and comprehension, and there is a focus on genre as a basis for comprehension and writing. Terry observed that the results in both these countries, and how they had been achieved, were definitely worthy of further investigation.
There then followed a short discussion around issues and questions raised by the audience. A significant element of this was around the ethics for teachers in adopting and applying a blanket method approach to all learners. Sue said she had concerns with approaches that identify those who are behind, using means that may or may not be valid, then putting all of those learners onto the same programme. She feels passionately that it is the teacher's job to diagnose learning issues in children, then address these as required, rather than the adoption of a resource or programme where everyone gets the same input. Such an approach might not only pedagogically questionable, it is also ethically questionable.
It was a fascinating and illuminating session for me, and I suspect for others in the room too. There is no doubt this is a controversial area at the moment, but it is important that we all engage with the evidence and differing opinions to help us find our way forward, and one which will produce the best outcomes for our learners. There are no 'silver bullets' in education and learning, but it is too easy to allow ourselves to be driven by political ideology and dogma, or by the loudest voices, rather than taking the time to consider what the evidence and data is telling us. As a school leader, I always favoured a mixed approach, including synthetic phonics, which was tailored to individual needs, rather a slavish adherence to a particular programme, resource or approach for all. This is not always the easiest approach, and may not be possible in all circumstances, but is one I think we should be aiming to get back to as soon as we can. I really do hope we, and Australia, learn some of the lessons from England to prevent us from sharing many of the same outcomes.
I would commend Margaret's two books to anyone who is interested in this area and wants to find out more. They are full of chapters from academics and researchers from across the globe. Thank you to all the speakers for making the one and a half hours so interesting and informative. Thanks for the pre-prepared notes which helped and allowed me to fully concentrate on what was being said. Sorry if I have slightly misquoted anyone, I did make some of my own notes, and I wanted to write this as quickly as possible whilst everything was still fresh in my mind.