Debbie: The field of ‘Education’ is devolved in the United Kingdom. This has led to a different rationale, and different content, for ‘official’ guidance for teacher training, and foundational literacy instruction for learners, in England compared to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The consequences in reality for many teachers, learners and families are nothing less than a travesty.

How can it be that the teaching and acquisition of the same English spelling system – the complex English alphabetic code (the most complex alphabetic code in the world) – and the same phonics skills required for reading and spelling – are LEFT TO CHANCE considering the findings of decades of international research into reading instruction and leading-edge classroom practice?

Dr Gillian Evans knows full well about this state of affairs. She has written about the effect of this ‘chance’ provision for teacher-training and teaching in Scotland as the experiences of her son, Thomas, are a consequence of this unacceptable approach. You see, there is freedom in Scotland for advisors and teachers to make their own professional choices with regard to reading instruction. But in order to make informed ‘professional choices’, advisors and teachers need good professional knowledge and understanding of the findings of research and leading-edge classroom provision in the first place! The teaching of reading and spelling in the English language is far too important, and challenging, to be left to chance. Guidance and training should be the same across the world!

Go no further reading my post below until you’ve read in full Dr Evans’ description of the circumstances of reading instruction (for dyslexics and all learners) in her post, “All Learners in Scotland Matter”, No They Don’t.

In Gillian’s post, she writes:

“I was convinced I was going to win my claim because I had expert witnesses: for dyslexia, Professor Linda Siegel (Ontario, Canada) and Dr Tim Conway (USA), and for systematic synthetic phonics, Debbie Hepplewhite (recommended to me by Sir Jim Rose). This was supported by a wealth of evidence that the schools my son attended never taught him how to decode, a basic requirement for learning how to read.”

[As an aside – note that the wonderful Professor Linda Siegel even volunteered to travel to Scotland from Canada, at her own expense, to give testimony at the tribunal – but the covid ‘pandemic’ and lockdowns meant we all had to provide evidence via Zoom.]

Some back story to show why Sir Jim Rose was confident to suggest I support Gillian in her claim:

Gillian and her son, Thomas, had an exceptional set of (international) expert witnesses under the circumstances. I cannot even begin to match the extraordinary academic credentials of Professor Linda Siegel and Dr Tim Conway, so why did Sir Jim Rose recommend me?

In 2005, Sir Jim Rose was invited to conduct an independent national review into the teaching of reading by the, then, UK government. His subsequent report, the Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading Final Report (March 2006), is world-renowned and was a hugely significant turning point in England for promoting the professional understanding of ‘reading’ based on the Simple View of Reading (Gough and Tunmer, 1986) which replaced the Searchlights Reading Strategies (National Literacy Strategy, 1998). This was an extremely important ‘official’ move away from multi-cueing word-guessing for lifting the words off the page which is shown by research to be seriously damaging to at least some children’s reading profiles (the way in which they look at the words on the page and ‘see’ them and try to guess unknown words from various clues such as the picture, the context, first letters, word shape, to lift the words off the page technically). Here are a few key extracts I took from Jim’s report.

As a representative of the UK Reading Reform Foundation, I had already been very active (as a primary teacher) in pioneering for research-informed reading instruction in England. I became the editor of the RRF newsletter in 2001, and met many politicians (including Ministers) and Ofsted (school) inspectors, and attended various governmental inquiries, including the DfES Phonics Seminar (2003), prior to Sir Jim’s review. I personally met with Minister Nick Gibb at his request, who proceeded to become the champion of research-informed reading instruction in England which includes the promotion and support of Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) programmes. Nick Gibb has been instrumental in various government initiatives for phonics and reading instruction for many years. He worked hard to urge a House of Commons’ inquiry conducted by the Education and Skills Committee, Teaching Children to Read (2005), which I helped to inform – and which led to Jim Rose being invited to conduct an independent national review into the teaching of reading.

During this period, I wrote many informative emails, with references to research, and personal observations and commentary about the prevailing training content of the flawed National Literacy Strategy (NLS) guidance, to both Nick Gibb and Jim Rose. This enabled Jim to have a very good appreciation of my knowledge and understanding of the international research, and to the flaws of the NLS, and to the realities of official NLS teacher-training and classroom practice. I started pioneering as a class teacher, and went on to be a primary headteacher, then a special needs teacher – and subsequently ended up writing comprehensive phonics materials and programmes along with providing teacher-training internationally. I spoke alongside Jim in some literacy conferences. I also initiated the establishment of the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction and invited Sir Jim Rose to join the founding committee which he kindly agreed to – and he went on to contribute several posts for the IFERI blog! [Jim never lost interest in the importance of promoting research-informed, and practice-informed, reading instruction to his dying day. He was a truly wonderful human being.]

With regard to phonics practice, Jim himself flagged up this video (unsolicited) that he had ‘discovered’ via the internet, and commented to me how impressed he was with my explanation of the phonics skills for reading and spelling. At a later date, he contacted me to commend me about a video where I am discussing the rationale and content of the No Nonsense Phonics Skills resources. Jim then went on to visit a school where No Nonsense Phonics was being trialled. In other words, Jim knew I had the requisite knowledge and understanding of the body of research on reading instruction, the historical and current international context and the practicalities of the provision of foundational literacy in the classroom, and across many classrooms. He knew I was well-equipped to recognise good practice, or not, when I observe it. I am certainly well-equipped to have taken a view on whether Thomas had been provided with research-informed reading instruction suitable for any learner – including one who was struggling and with a dyslexic profile.

Gillian provided her ‘expert witnesses’ with an extraordinary mountain of evidence of every description about Thomas’s literacy experiences, and results, over his school years. I’m talking about boxes and boxes of material and relevant information – including Thomas’s own, handwritten work. So, not only were the three witnesses equipped with a wide and deep range of professional knowledge, understanding and experience, we were also equipped with an enormous amount of material pertinent to Thomas specifically. Add to this, I had many hours of conversations with Gillian about the context for Thomas and the consequences of the type of teaching he had been given.

For the Scottish tribunal to dismiss the collective observations, findings, conclusions of Gillian’s three diverse and expert witnesses (along with Gillian’s own testimony) was nothing less than inexplicable – unless one considers there was at play profound bias, subjectivity, protectionism, denial and, I’m sorry to say, ignorance at play.

Thomas, very sadly indeed, is but one child who has suffered enormously and unnecessarily because of the Reading Wars, and the ‘chance’ of who provides the guidance and advice to those in political authority and then the chance of the approach to teacher-training of those in political authority. With the collective, international research findings – and leading-edge practice – there is no way that England’s guidance should be any different from Scotland’s, Wales’s and Northern Ireland’s guidance. But, to this day, that is the situation – official guidance for teachers’ training and provision for children remains LEFT TO CHANCE.

Here is a thread featuring the pioneering work of Anne Glennie – including her petition in Scotland which was signed by Sir Jim Rose himself.

Direct link to Anne’s petition – I urge you, please, to sign it – this takes seconds:

PLEASE NOTE: It’s very important I add that there are schools in Scotland, and some advisors, who are doing a great job learning about the research and best practice, and promoting this to others – but this is still at the level of ‘chance’ – and it is taking a very long time to spread this information and practice. At the time of writing this post (June 2023), it is SEVENTEEN years since Sir Jim Rose’s important review and report (which included reference to the Johnston and Watson research in Clackmannanshire), TEN years since England made systematic synthetic phonics statutory in the National Curriculum, and ELEVEN years since the statutory Year One ‘Phonics Screening Check’ was introduced in England. Come on the rest of the UK, it’s long overdue to do the right thing!

For official guidance and training to be weak and/or flawed will result in many more children, like Thomas, to be badly and unaccountably failed.

FURTHER: Teacher and literacy specialist, Rob Randel, writes about the guidance in Wales for reading instruction in the English language – another example of teachers’ professional knowledge and understanding being different from England’s guidance and ‘left to chance’.

***Dr Gillian Evans writes, ‘ “All Learners in Scotland Matter”, No They Don’t’ – and Gillian has the knowledge and experience to illustrate this parlous state of affairs…

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