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.