jumping the literacy hurdle

Someone once said that getting a baby dressed was like trying to put an octopus into a string bag. I was reminded of that during another recent discussion with synthetic phonics (SP) advocates. The debate was triggered by this comment; “Surely, the most fundamental aim of schools is to teach children to read.”

This sentence looks like an essay question for trainee teachers – if they’re still expected to write essays, that is. It encapsulates what has frustrated me so much about the SP ‘position’; all those implicit assumptions.

First there is no ‘surely’ about any aspect of education. You name it, there’s been heated debate about it. Second, it’s not safe to assume schools should have a ‘most fundamental’ aim. Education is a complex business and generally involves quite a few fundamental aims; focussing on one rather than the others is a risky strategy. Third, the sentence assumes a role for literacy that requires some justification.

reading in the real world

Reading is our primary means of recording spoken language. It provides a way of communicating with others across space and time. It extends working memory. It’s important. But in a largely literate society it’s easy to assume that all members of that society are, should be, or need to be equally literate. They’re not. They never have been. And I’ve yet to find any evidence showing that uniform literacy across the population is either achievable or necessary.

I’m not claiming that it doesn’t matter if someone isn’t a competent reader or if 15% of school leavers are functionally illiterate. What I am claiming is that less than 100% functional literacy doesn’t herald the end of civilisation as we know it.

For thousands of years, functionally illiterate people have grown food, baked, brewed, made clothes, pots, pans, furniture, tools, weapons and machines, built houses, palaces, cities, chariots, sailing ships, dams and bridges, navigated halfway around the world, formed exquisite glassware and stunning jewellery, composed songs, poems and plays, devised judicial systems and developed sophisticated religious beliefs.

All those things require knowledge and skill – but not literacy. The quality of human life has undoubtedly been transformed by literacy, and transformed for the better. But literacy is a vehicle for knowledge, a means to an end not an end in itself. It’s important, not for its own sake but because of what it has enabled us – collectively – to achieve. I’m not disparaging reading for enjoyment; but reading for enjoyment didn’t change the world.

What the real world needs is not for everyone to be functionally literate, but for a critical mass of people to be functionally literate. And for some people to be so literate that they can acquire complex skills and knowledge that can benefit the rest of us. What proportion of people need to be functionally or highly literate will depend on what a particular society wants to achieve.

Human beings are a highly social species. Our ecological success (our ability to occupy varied habitats – what we do to those habitats is something else entirely) is due to our ability to solve problems, to communicate those solutions to each other and to work collectively. What an individual can or can’t do is important, but what we can do together is more important because that’s a more efficient way of using resources for mutual benefit.

This survey found that 20% of professionals and 30% of managers don’t have adequate literacy skills. It’s still possible to hold down a skilled job, draw a good salary, drive a car, get a mortgage, raise a family and retire on an adequate pension even if your literacy skills are flaky. Poor literacy might be embarrassing and require some ingenious workarounds to cover it up, but that’s more of a problem with social acceptability than utility. And plenty of jobs don’t require you to be a great reader.

It looks as though inadequate literacy, although an issue in the world of work, isn’t an insurmountable obstacle. So why would anyone claim that teaching children to read is ‘the most fundamental aim of schools’?

reading in schools

There are several reasons. Mass education systems were set up partly to provide manufacturing industry with a literate, numerate workforce. Schools in those fledgling education systems were often run on shoestring budgets. If a school had very limited resources, making reading a priority at least provided children with the opportunity to educate themselves in later life. Literacy takes time to develop, so if you have the luxury of being able to teach additional subjects, it makes sense to access them via reading and writing – thus killing two birds with one stone. Lastly, because for a variety of reasons public examinations are written ones, literacy is a key measure of pupil and school achievement.

In the real world, if you find reading especially difficult you can still learn a lot – by watching and listening or trial and error. But the emphasis schools place on literacy means that if in school you happen to be a child who finds reading especially difficult, you’re stumped. You can’t even compensate by becoming knowledgeable if you’re required to jump the literacy hurdle first. And poor knowledge, however literate you are, is a big problem in the real world.

SP advocates would say that the reason some children find reading difficult is because they haven’t been taught properly. And that if they were taught properly they would be able to read. That’s a possible explanation, but one possible explanation doesn’t rule out all the other possible explanations. And if Jeanne Chall’s descriptions of teachers’ approaches to formal reading instruction programmes are anything to go by, it’s unlikely that all children are going to get taught to read ‘properly’ any time soon. If some children have problems learning to read for whatever reason, we need to make sure that they’re not denied access to knowledge as well. Because in the real world, it’s knowledge that makes things work.

Now for some of the arms of the reading octopus that got tangled up in the string bag that is Twitter.

• I’m not saying reading isn’t important; it is – but that doesn’t make it the ‘fundamental aim of schools’, nor ‘a fundamental skill needed for life’.
• I’m not saying children shouldn’t be taught to read; they should be, but variation in reading ability doesn’t automatically mean a ‘deficit’ in instruction, home life or in the child.
• I’m not saying some children struggle to read because they are ‘less able’ than others; some kids find reading especially challenging but that has nothing to do with their intelligence.
• Nor am saying we shouldn’t have high aspirations for students; we should, but there’s no reason to have the same aspirations for all of them. Our strength as a species is in our diversity.

Frankly, if forced to choose, I’d rather live in a community populated by competent, practical people with reading skills that left something to be desired, than one populated by people with, say, PPE degrees from Oxford who’ve forgotten which way is up.

brutal – and unworkable

This morning @HeatherBellaF posted an example on Twitter of what the principal of a high profile ‘flagship’ academy called her “direct style of management”. @HeatherBellaF’s comment was “Flippin’ heck! Brutal!”

In her first week at the academy, the principal says she asked the senior leadership team to “list those who they thought were inadequate teachers”. The names of almost a third of the 60+ teachers at the school came up. (We’re not told if the list included any of the senior leadership team.) A frank interview with each member of staff on the list followed. Within a year almost all had left.

Tales of ‘new brooms’ are a popular feature of management periodicals. Typically they mention the unsentimental removal of ‘dead wood’, the introduction of ‘new blood’ and the organisation in question being ‘turned around’ as a consequence. Such strategies are sometimes necessary, but most chief executives of private companies the size of the academy in question would think long and hard before replacing a third of their workforce in the space of a few months.

Private companies have responsibilities towards several groups of people. Shareholders, who provide capital; customers, the main source of income; their workforce, who enable them to operate; and taxpayers, who provide the infrastructure the company needs to function. All those groups of people need to be kept happy, or things go badly wrong. If a lot of shareholders sell their shares the company could go under; if customers go elsewhere, income dries up; if there’s high staff turnover productivity plummets; and if the firm avoids paying taxes the national infrastructure can suffer – and then everybody suffers.

For a private company, the strategy adopted by the academy principal would be a risky one. Leaving aside issues like whether senior managers would comply, the impact on the remaining staff or the union’s view, the outcome is unpredictable. In a best case, all those listed might see the error of their ways and pull up their socks and their performance. At the other extreme, all the staff in question might exit ASAP. That could be a problem for a medium-sized private company, because replacing staff costs money and time. Productivity and cashflow could suffer during those few months and if the company was struggling financially anyway, it could be the last straw. So most managers would adopt this approach only as a last resort, or would make sure the company could survive a few turbulent months before grasping the nettle.

Traditionally, state schools haven’t had to worry about the impact of recruitment costs on cashflow because they’ve had LEAs to fall back on, though questions would have been asked about a secondary school with a 30% staff turnover. But for a showcase academy, stumping up the cash to make sure teachers are top-notch and on message isn’t only good for the kids, it’s a sound marketing strategy.

The market economy model adopted by successive UK governments assumes that competition is a good thing because it fosters excellence. What this model conveniently overlooks is that the private sector looks healthy because we see only the companies that survive; not the 50% that don’t make it through the first three years. It also overlooks the fact that private companies can do whatever it takes to make a (legal) profit; if a particular type of customer isn’t profitable, the company can change its target demographic – unlike public education, health and social care that have to provide services for everybody.

It’s possible that all the teachers deemed ‘inadequate’ were simply not suited to that particular challenging academy and that the principal was right when she calmed her ‘moral qualms’ by hoping that the teachers who moved on would “succeed in a smaller, more orderly school”. That’s possible, but what if every ‘challenging’ school did the same? And what about the teachers who left having been told that “you (sic) have been identified by the leadership team as inadequate”?

Teacher training, recruitment and professional development are funded by all of us and it’s in all our interests to ensure that that investment is a productive one. The strategy of replacing teachers who are not up to the task might benefit a particular school, but the cost is borne by the community. So is the cost of another school recruiting them. So are the costs of teachers leaving the profession because having heard that they, personally, have been deemed inadequate has prompted them to think that making the ‘right decision about their career’ is to get out of teaching.

Many private companies, given the opportunity to replace ‘inadequate’ staff at no cost, would do so in a heartbeat because that would likely result in a rapid, substantial improvement in performance. So although the academy’s human resources management approach was effective, it was effective only because the costs were passed on to others, notably taxpayers. And the strategy won’t scale up; it will be effective for a few early adopters, but the pool of superlative teachers willing and able to work in a challenging school and have frank conversations with the principal isn’t a bottomless one.

It might have been more cost-effective in the long-term to have put in place a robust training programme that enabled the ‘inadequate’ teachers to become ‘adequate’. Or even ‘outstanding’.

This approach to teacher recruitment and retention isn’t just brutal – it’s unworkable.