Not Saussure

May 18, 2007

Boris Johnson on teaching

Filed under: Education, Politics — notsaussure @ 7:42 pm

While my admiration for the greatest living British Conservative normally knows no bounds, I’m rather worried by this:

We need whole-class teaching, and we need to insist that all pupils are taught to read by synthetic phonics, so that we end the disgrace whereby 44 per cent leave primary school either illiterate or innumerate.

If we sort that out, it would be a greater advance for social justice than anything achieved by Labour. We need to re-yuppify the teaching profession, so that first-rate graduates once again think of teaching as a rewarding, holiday-rich alternative to the City or the law.

Let’s take this one bit at a time, and start by imagining Mr Johnson accompanying one of his children on the child’s first day at school. He introduces himself to the Head and to the class teacher and then, before delivering young Borisina to their charge, says,

Oh, but, before leaving you in loco parentis, I must first assure myself that you’re going to teach her to read by the synthetic phonics method. No other method will do.

Well, wouldn’t the teacher be justified in thinking this is a bit odd, even by the standards of the man who gave Petronella Wyatt a job? ‘Well, if you insist, Mr Johnson’, one imagines them saying, ‘But, err, why?’

I don’t want to argue about the advantages or disadvantages of various different methods of teaching children to read, because it’s a subject in which I have no expertise or experience, any more than does Boris Johnson. In fact, I’m not at all sure I’d recognise a synthetic phonic, as opposed, I suppose, to the natural variety, Nor, I think, would Mr Johnson pretend, if you asked him, to have any great expertise in the strengths and weaknesses of various methods of teaching reading to young children, classroom management and so forth.

My late mother, as it happens, did know, from her career, a fair bit about the teaching of reading; her take on the matter always seemed to me pretty sensible. Different methods and reading schemes, she reckoned, all have their strengths and weaknesses and all, in practice, do the job pretty well for most children. What’s important, she always said, is to have a good teacher who, first, actually understands the principles and practice behind the scheme she’s using and, second, has the expertise and insight to spot when an individual child is having difficulties and then both to identify the difficulties and decide on how best to help that particular child overcome those particular problems. This would obviously involve understanding a multitude of different techniques.

With that understood, she reckoned, the best thing was for the teacher to use, as the default method for her particular class, was the method the teacher best understood and felt most comfortable with.

That always seemed to me like basic common sense. Hire professionals who understand the job and then trust them to use their professional expertise.

Which rather neatly, to my mind, leads into Mr Johnston’s second point. I assume, since he must have thought about the matter, that his call to ‘re-yuppify the teaching profession’ cannot mean that he wants to pay teachers what they might expect to earn had, instead of entering teaching, they’d instead gone to work for city trading firms or either City or large West-End law firms. If he does actually mean that, I’m going to worry a bit about what my income and council tax bills will look like under a Conservative government.

If, on the other hand, he means treat we should treat teachers as the skilled professionals they are, then why, for heaven’s sake, does he think they’d appreciate MPs –who know as little, in practice, about teaching as do they about commodities trading or the law of contract (and why should they?) — bouncing up and down spluttering ‘we must insist you do your job — which you’ve trained for and we haven’t , but anyway, we know best — in such and such a way’? Why, in the name of God, does he think this would be a sensible idea. I thought we’d established that the state running — as opposed to funding — things usually ends in disaster.

I’d always associated such behaviour with New Labour. That Boris Johnson, of all people, is emulating it fills me with foreboding.



  1. Aren’t magic bullets those things that you shove up your bum for piles?

    In any event, 11+ fails to measure those who are almost totally innumerate and yet are very literate.

    Some people are late developers for a number of reasons.

    Whilst it might be right to siphon off the bright sparks, don’t dismiss those with a slow fuse.

    Sometimes formal qualifications aren’t all they are cracked out to be. I wish I had a pound for every wig I have scalped in court and I don’t have any legal qualification to my name.

    Comment by jailhouselawyer — May 18, 2007 @ 11:05 pm

  2. As it happens, I *do* have a very detailed experience of learning English by phonetics because that was how I was taught – and very satisfactory it was, too! Also, I was taught whilst sitting at my own desk which was placed in a very straight line and thus I enjoyed the advantage of not having to put up with interference from 5 or 6 other pupils sharing my space.

    I would also, begging your late mother’s pardon, resist the liberal notion that somehow teaching has to be tailor-made to suit individuals. Amongst other things, school should be a preparation for life, and life, as Archbishop Dawkins will tell you, very loudly, is a cruel culler of the weak and infirm and definitely does not come custom-rigged.

    (I must now use my spell-checker to make sure I haven’t made my usual quota of errors!)

    Comment by David Duff — May 19, 2007 @ 8:53 am

  3. Ah, yes; thank you, Mr Duff, for reminding me of one of my late mother’s other insights: ‘The trouble is that everyone’s been to school and learned to read, so they think that makes them an expert on the subject’.
    I think you’re looking at this the wrong way round, an error typical of socialists and other collectivists, who’re more interested in ideology than obtaining results.
    The teacher’s job, according to my late mother, included teaching the child to read, write, do sums and so forth. Didn’t really matter how the teacher did this, just so long as the job got done. In her (not inconsiderable) experience, if you’re any good at the job, you find that, whatever your favoured method, it’ll work pretty well with most of the children in your class. However, you’ll inevitably find that particular children have particular difficulties with particular aspects of reading (maths … whatever). At this point, according to her, you say to yourself something like, ‘Little Johnnie’s clearly having difficulty with such-and-such. What I’ve been doing so far with him isn’t working, and I don’t think it’s going to [if you don’t, and if it’s not just that he’s getting there a bit slowly] so I’ll try something else.’
    Sort of the same principle, when you come to think of it, that your GP works on — ‘These tablets should clear it up, but if they don’t, come back in a week and I’ll change the prescription’. Your GP is working on the basis that his initial diagnosis is correct and the fact that, if it is correct, such-and-such a prescription normally does the trick. And normally he’s right. But, since he isn’t always right and, even if he is, he knows that — because everyone’s different, inconvenient though this is for ideologues — if something works for 75% of people, that means it won’t work for 25% of them, and something else probably will, so he’d better keep the matter under constant review.
    Your spell-checker seems to have done the trick, but I think it may have confused phonetics and phonics (unless, of course, you were taught to read using IPA, a method my mother considered pretty eccentric and which isn’t widely used now, though once it was pretty popular).

    Comment by notsaussure — May 19, 2007 @ 9:26 am

  4. “[T]ypical of socialists and other collectivists”.

    God, you can be cruel and cutting at times!

    But what, I can’t help asking, happens to the other 75% of children as a teacher spends time dealing with the 25% who are a mixture of the recalcitrant, the lazy and the downright stupid?

    And please don’t use GPs in the argument, a branch of the medical services whose utility is in inverse proportion to their huge salaries and perks!

    Comment by David Duff — May 19, 2007 @ 11:10 am

  5. Your mother was spot on about the tendency to generalise from one’s personal experience, but if you’ll forgive me doing just that from the vantage point of having taught both of my children to read, she was also right about there being no single, magic formula. One of them found phonics useful; the other had no interest in them at all, and learned in whole words, with pictures to give clues (largely from the ‘Tintin’ books!)All that really matters is that, now well into their teens, they both love reading.

    As for tailoring learning to the individual, it seems to have done them proud. I don’t have much sympathy for the ‘life is a jungle, get used to it’ argument. As you say yourself, David, life is cruel to the weak. Better to get children’s strength and confidence up to cope with it. Who fares better in adversity? The well-nourished or the half-starved?

    Comment by archrights — May 19, 2007 @ 11:26 am

  6. cruel and cutting? That’s just me being mildly irritated!
    The short answer to your question about what do the other 75% do is that they’re doing tasks the teacher has set them that reinforce and stretch their new-found abilities. While they’re thus occupied, the teacher concentrates on helping the weaker children to get up to scratch. No one benefits from constant supervision and spoon-feeding, dearly though the present government would like to think they do.
    Archrights, that’s exactly the point, to my mind. If it’s working and the child’s enjoying it (and the two go together), then that’s the best method. At least so my mother always argued, and that was based on a great deal of practical and theoretical knowledge.
    You mention Tin-Tin — I well remember that magic moment when you realise you can read. It was when my father told me he wasn’t going to read me any more of The Crab With The Golden Claws that night, and it was time for me to go to sleep. So, of course, five minutes later I put the light back on, and thought I’d give it a go myself. To my delight, I could.
    I seem to recall this had the unfortunate side effect that, for a while, I thought it great fun to be able to swear just like Captain Haddock.

    Comment by notsaussure — May 19, 2007 @ 12:20 pm

  7. Your mother’s comments about reading are spot on. The phonics and look and say method both had their devotees but it was the ability to not only implement the scheme but that it then led to stages 2 and 3 and that the child was not chopped and changed about on educational whim over a six year period – that’s what counted.

    Comment by jameshigham — May 19, 2007 @ 5:00 pm

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