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Evidence informed, or something else?

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a seminar at Edinburgh University's School of Education, Moray House. The title of the seminar was 'Reading the Evidence; Synthetic Phonics and Literacy Learning'. The title referred to one book edited by Margaret M Clark, and another 'Teaching Initial Literacy: Policies, evidence and ideology' again edited by Margaret. The first was produced in 2017 and the second is hot off the press, both being available from Amazon as either an ebook or paperback. Both are filled with contributions by leading academic researchers and writers on the subject of literacy acquisition and the use of evidence to inform this.

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'.

Margaret, like the rest of the panellists, asserted that her view was not that Synthetic Phonics is necessarily 'bad', just that there is no evidence to support any assertion that this should be the only method used to develop literacy in learners. Each speaker was to echo her view, based on extensive research of her own and others, that a mixed approach is one that is producing the best results in many systems. She detailed how synthetic phonics had become emphasised, above all other methods, in England following the publication of the Rose report in 2006. In 2012 a statutory phonics screening check was introduced in England for all six year olds. This consisted of forty words, twenty real words and twenty pseudo words, which the children had to read to their teacher. This started as a light touch diagnostic check, but quickly developed into a high-stakes accountability measure. The pass mark is 32 and the child has 'failed' the test with any mark lower than this, and has to retake the test the following year. Schools are expected to increase their pass rate each year, by the DfE and Ofsted, repercussions follow for schools and their leaders when this does not happen.

Margaret observed that her first book had been subject to severe criticism in England and elsewhere, much of this from those with commercial interests in the promotion of synthetic phonics. It has been challenged in the UK for attacking Nick Gibb for his enthusiasm for synthetic phonics, for the fact that some of the contributors had cited Torgerson et al 2006 whose research it has been claimed has been challenged, and that the evidence from PIRLS published in December 2017 supposedly demonstrated the success of the government's synthetic phonics policy and the screening check. She concluded that whilst her first book was written mainly in response to the situation in England, and the second as a result of concerns regarding a similar direction of travel in Australia, there were definite warnings for Scotland in what had happened in England. She was already aware of pressure being put on parents to see Synthetic Phonics as the only way of developing literacy, rather than as another tool, that may be suitable for some, but perhaps not for others.

Greg started his input by stating that he was a self-confessed nerd in terms of literacy, phonics and grammar and had spent his career working and researching in this area. His first strong statement was 'There is still no evidence that any one phonics approach is any better than any other' as he explored synthetic and analytical phonics, whilst also touching on the ITA (Initial Teaching Alphabet) something the younger members of the audience had no knowledge of. He was a member of the group that had produced the Rose Report and was quite dismayed how this had been used. He stated that he and a colleague had done a 'fact-check' on all of the commercially available resources available to deliver synthetic phonics and had found many of them contained basic language and grammatical errors and misunderstandings. 'Some don't know the difference between their diagraphs and their diphthongs'. They had been able to provide the DfE with a list of resources that had been checked for factual errors, but they were still unsure of their usefulness in teaching synthetic phonics. The quality of materials available to schools is questionable, to say the least, and now there is a move to roll out the use of synthetic phonics in adult literacy learning courses. He pointed out that if there was a lack of evidence for the sole use of synthetic phonics with younger learners, there was absolutely none with regard to adult learners.

Step forward Terry Wrigley. Terry had looked closely at the 'evidence' and data being cited by Nick Gibb and others, and had found some interesting results. He started by looking at the expected impact of synthetic phonics on reading for understanding by the end of KS1 at age 7. He observed that most schools actually began their mandatory synthetic phonics courses in 2007, but he looked at the data for this factor from 2001 through to 2012 and had found no statistically significant improvement or change in the results for 7 year olds. He then turned his attention to the expected impact on reading tests at the end of KS2 at age 11. Again there was no significant variation in results, except in 2016 when percentages plummeted following Michael Gove's imposition of harder tests to bring more rigour into the process! When he had looked at the PIRLS data published in 2017, he found that England  had risen from joint tenth, to eighth. However, they had gained only half as many points as in the previous cycle prior to the imposition of synthetic phonics as the sole mandatory way of developing literacy in early years. What he also noted was the significant improvement in literacy levels being achieved in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, so had contacted colleagues there for their observations.

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.

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