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Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) - Promoting Synthetic Phonics : Page Title

RRF Newsletter 60 back to contents
The extraordinary events leading to the review of the Oxford Brookes University Catch Up programme!Debbie Hepplewhite

There are teachers who are drawn to schools and pupils in challenging circumstances. They are commonly dedicated, determined - indeed driven to do their utmost for those in their care. Unfortunately, official processes, systems, initiatives (call them what you will) can be counter-productive to the raising of standards in schools - but I expect that there is no-one in authority who would admit to this. The lower the standards of the school (academic and behavioural), the more pressure is brought to bear, the more formality and the more “non-negotiable” regimes are forced onto the schools. I speak from experience. Many good people are discarded or fall by the wayside. This includes the pupils.


There is no holding those in authority to account for their wrong decisions, their man-management (or lack of it), their enforced procedures and official programmes, their intimidation, their inadequacy, their criteria for evaluating progress - or anything else that you care to mention. There is simply no questioning anything. But I do question. I question and I persist. And I conclude that there is no accountability from those in authority over us - and, furthermore, there is no effective and accessible mechanism for an ordinary person or teacher to hold anyone in authority to account. The odds are simply stacked against justice and common sense. I am confident that many will agree with my observations.


All that remains is having one’s say in the public domain. This is what I do liberally and frequently - thanks to the internet - and over time this has gained resonance with others. I encourage and support others to take advantage of this modern public forum to have their say. With enough ‘voices’ this will make a difference.


In my last challenging school, I did my utmost to persuade others (by word and deed) to pay heed to the need for synthetic phonics for beginning reading instruction and intervention throughout the school. Two-thirds of the upper juniors were illiterate or semi-literate - this is shocking and a consequence of the school and wrong official ‘guidance’. Amongst teaching colleagues and teaching assistants there was much support for my suggestions and individuals would come to me for advice and information. Parents supported where they could. The governing body seemed split in terms of support, the senior management sat on the fence, and the local authority literacy advisers would have nothing to do with me. They actively and blatantly undermined my work and advice. They provided Further Literacy Support lessons for the borderline children and did not consult with the class teachers about this decision, nor did they consult with me about the needs of the pupils in my role as Upper Junior Team Leader. (Eventually I requested to be allowed to stand down from this management position because I did not agree with anything being brought in by the local authority!) They enforced the use of the NLS Early Literacy Support and Additional Literacy Support programmes despite the protests of knowledgeable teaching assistants who had to deliver them (but who wanted to deliver synthetic phonics lessons and said so) and they simply ignored my recognised expertise and personal teaching success in reading instruction. The School Improvement Adviser was in an uncomfortable position as he was fully aware of how unpopular I was with his colleagues and the onus on him was, of course, to implement the official initiatives.


Eventually, as the governing body would not allow me to downsize from my full-time upper junior class teaching post to pursue my desire to provide synthetic phonics teacher-training, I left the school. After a term, however, I was invited to return as part-time manager of the Learning Support Unit to teach 10 junior children with literacy difficulties and significant poor behaviour. I jumped at the chance! I immediately assessed the pupils’ code knowledge and skills of blending and segmenting, noted their poor handwriting - and set about teaching them systematically through a synthetic phonics route. Their results in terms of new learning of code knowledge and skills, and improved behaviour, were remarkable in just one term. The improvement ratio using the Burt Word Reading test was 3.5 to 6 times the expected rate. I had quantifiable results.


A week from the end of my first term back, I was told that my services were no longer required as the school had financial difficulties. I liaised with the class teachers to describe what they needed to do, and what resources they might find helpful, to carry on with the synthetic phonics teaching. At that time, everyone ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ about the children’s progress and change of attitude to their learning.


Shortly after I left, however, I heard through the grapevine that one of the pupils’ class teachers and a couple of teaching assistants were being sent by the local authority advisers, free of charge, to attend the Oxford Brookes University Catch Up intervention programme. One teacher told me that the local authority advisers had said that the school needed “something different from Debbie’s advice”.


This was very worrying.


I contacted the local authority literacy department, gave my name to the receptionist and asked to see a copy of the Catch Up programme to evaluate. This first lady I spoke to was very helpful and said, “I am sure we can find a spare copy somewhere”. The message came back that they were unable to supply me with the programme.


I then approached the acting Director of Education and told him about my worries and asked him who had evaluated the Catch Up programme for the local authority - and offered my services to evaluate the Catch Up programme on the authority’s behalf. I also asked whether the local authority was in support of the Rose Report recommendations, noting that the council was a Conservative council and the Conservatives support synthetic phonics teaching as a flagship policy. Sure enough, the local authority claimed to be in line with the Rose recommendations.


I established a group email to take my worries to the following people in my local authority: the Chief School Improvement adviser, the challenging school’s School Improvement Adviser, the lead National Primary Strategy literacy consultant, the Director of Education and the subsequent Director, the National Union of Teachers representative (a local headteacher), the local education correspondent, the Conservative MP, the chair of the governors of the challenging school, the councillor with the portfolio for education and my local RRF colleague, Elizabeth Nonweiler.


There was some consternation about the basis of my offer to review the Catch Up programme. Was I offering my professional (paid) services as a phonics consultant in which case there would be a rigmarole to engage my services or… what? If my reply was that I would do this for them free of charge, then they asked why they should ask me when I was nothing to do with the authority - that is, not ‘employed’ by them. In other words, they had an excuse whatever my response. I said my offer was to undertake the evaluation voluntarily as a concerned local community member with a nationally recognised expertise in reading instruction.


They neither accepted my offer, nor informed me who had evaluated the Catch Up programme for the authority (had anyone?). The senior management of the school told my friends within the school not to supply me with the Catch Up material because I was “causing trouble for the school”.


I tried suggesting to the local authority advisers that in these days of ‘transparency’, surely any material or programme used in a state school should be available for anyone to review. There was no response to this issue. On advice, I then tried to use the Freedom of Information Act to get hold of the programme from the local authority and the written reply was to state some paragraph in the act which said the local authority did not need to supply me with information which I was able to access from elsewhere.


Eventually, a politician from a different district acquired the Catch Up programme and kindly sent it to me to evaluate. The contents were shockingly inadequate and did not resemble in any shape, size or form a synthetic phonics teaching programme. It was easy for me to draw attention to this fact by alerting my group email recipients to the Catch Up pupil phonics assessment. This amounts to the 26 letters of the alphabet plus four digraphs ch, sh, th and wh and a long list of consonant clusters (which are not even taught as units of sound in a synthetic phonics programme as the phoneme - or single sound unit - is the basis for the teaching). Listening for sounds was in the first, last, medial order and not the all-through-the-word order highlighted in the Rose Report. There was no response from any of the email recipients to this information. I also drew attention to the claims of the programme writers of 3X improvement ratio and compared this to my results at the challenging school which exceeded the Catch Up claims with every pupil. No response. I offered to explain in detail why the programme was not appropriate for special needs. No response. I asked if anyone would like to attend Catch Up training with me. No response. I have now learnt that the Ruth Miskin Read Write Inc books which I had managed to acquire for the school (some donated, some bought) were removed from the Learning Support Unit and replaced with the repetitive text, look and guess books recommended by the Catch Up programme and the Catch Up trained staff members now speak of the need for a ‘range of strategies’ - contrary to the observations of the Rose Report.


I have raised this situation with individuals with national authority. No response.


These events do not even begin to describe the number of issues I have raised with my local authority over the past eight years to no avail. I have been told by the current Corporate Director for the Children and Young People Directorate that it is entirely “inappropriate” to approach any of the parents of the pupils with special needs about these issues as I am no longer working at the school. ..


…And neither are most of the other staff members working at this school since it was closed down this Easter (07) to be opened as a Fresh Start school following the Easter holidays. My former colleagues, whom I found to be very capable and committed, were sacked en masse (couched as ‘redundancy’) following what I consider to be the failure of the local authority and senior management team to get a grip on literacy and standards of behaviour. Closure, after all, is the final answer to challenging schools and is arguably the most unaccountable official behaviour of all. The authority has, however, to all intents and purposes fulfilled its obligations to follow national guidance in all matters. Considering the size of salaries and responsibilities afforded to local authority advisers, this, in my mind, raises the bigger question as to whether advisers really help or hinder progress and standards in schools, whether local authority advisers add anything to the climate that challenging schools work within - indeed, whether they warrant their existence as advisers at all.


Ultimately, staff, pupils and parents have all been betrayed at the challenging school I have described by a wide range of official guidance, procedures and initiatives which were rolled out to address the problems. The real problems, however, were never addressed by these at all. How much is this replicated in other challenging schools? Until such time as challenging schools are in the hands of sensible people with a real understanding of how to teach and remediate literacy, how to support staff, pupils and parents compassionately, and how to address pupils who have become unruly (usually through no fault of their own), then the Fresh Start school will be no more successful than the original school although it may look a lot glossier and have a more grandiose name. We shall have to wait and see.


Meanwhile, my local authority has notified me of the growing popularity of the Catch Up programme in schools in this authority. We learn that it is in 4,000 schools across the country. I have asked how the local authority can possibly purport to be in line with the Rose recommendations and promote the Catch Up programme simultaneously. This is a contradiction in terms. No response. I have also pointed out, just like Mona McNee, that however vast the number of people who support or promote something, this does not mean that it is ‘right’. I am so upset for the staff who will be trained in this, and similar, intervention programmes; and for the children who will receive flawed teaching in the name of catching up with peers - and for the parents of children struggling with literacy who are oblivious to this state of affairs.


The RRF has heard that local authorities across the country are currently promoting Catch Up heavily in secondary schools. How can local authorities be held to account for this advice and how can we effectively and quickly alert parents and mis-trained staff about this situation? Everyone who understands these issues needs to become pro-active in their circles and not just rely on others to challenge the status quo.


Update: My local weekly newspaper has recently published a piece on the opening of the Fresh Start school. It states that the school “will be located on the same site….but is to have a ‘completely new outlook’, with new staff, including the headteacher…”. To my mind this could be readily interpreted that the previous staff members have failed the children and needed to be replaced. Knowing what I know about this scenario, I think this is truly outrageous and it indicates nothing about the realities leading to the old school’s closure and the lack of accountability of the actions of those in authority. I shall be raising further questions at all levels regarding this scenario as it is symptomatic of a total lack of transparency and justice and seriously affects ordinary people.  





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