A debate on the above topic took place in the House of Lords on 24 March 2004 . Baroness Ashton (the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills) spoke about attempts which were being made to raise the achievement of boys. Hansard records the following response from Lord Quirk:
‘My Lords, does the Minister accept that the achievement gap at GCSE is related to a literacy gap which is already significant at the age of nine and which is as internationally widespread as it is puzzlingly recent? The noble Baroness will of course be familiar with research at the universities of Hull and St Andrews by Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson, and elsewhere by Marlynne Grant, showing that this literacy gap can be entirely closed by a switch of teaching method. Will the Minister therefore consult with experts such as Jennifer Chew and Bonnie Macmillan about evidence that the gap is worst in countries that have neglected phonics teaching in recent years?’
Baroness Ashton replied that phonics teaching was being emphasised, particularly in Key Stage 1 and the early years, for precisely the reasons identified by Lord Quirk. This is not in dispute. What is being questioned by the RRF and others, however, is whether the kind of phonics being taught is in line with the best research findings. In terms of standards achieved and the elimination of the gender gap, the NLS is clearly being outperformed by (for example) the rather different approaches being used in the Early Reading Research project carried out by Dr Jonathan Solity and his colleagues, in the study reported by Dr Marlynne Grant in this Newsletter, and in the Clackmannanshire study carried out by Prof. Rhona Johnston and Dr Joyce Watson.
With regard to the international comparisons, Baroness Ashton commented that ‘it is worth saying that the gender gap in England is significantly smaller than in most other OECD countries’. That statement is rather puzzling in view of the fact that one of the more recent studies, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (see Newsletter 51, page 21), showed England to be 28th out of 36 countries in terms of gender gap, with only Cyprus , Bulgaria , Singapore , the Republic of Moldova , New Zealand , Iran , Belize and Kuwait below it.