Kelly tears up schools' reading policy and backs phonics approach

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The Independent Online

Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, ripped up the Government's key policy for teaching reading in schools during the past seven years - and insisted on returning to a more "back to basics" approach.

In future, she ordered, all children should start to learn to read through a crash course in "synthetic phonics" - which teaches them through the sound of words - by the time they reach the age of five.

The move prompted fury from teachers' leaders with Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, warning: "The last thing teachers want is a massive upheaval as a result of the promotion of a single fashionable technique."

Ms Kelly was acting on the recommendation of an interim inquiry into the teaching of reading in primary schools which said the current "searchlights" approach - introduced as part of the Government's much vaunted compulsory literacy hour for schools - was hampering pupils' progress.

The decision is a major U-turn for Ms Kelly, who had earlier insisted on a variety of methods.

The introduction of the literacy strategy after 1997 had been hailed as the biggest success of Prime Minister Tony Blair's first term administration - improving reading standards in primary schools after 40 years of stagnation.

However, in his interim inquiry report yesterday, Jim Rose, former head of primary inspections at Ofsted, called for the "searchlights" system - under which children are also taught to read by recognising whole words - to be scrapped.

He said it carried with it "the danger of diverting teachers' attention from teaching early phonic skills and knowledge".

He cited a report from Ofsted which said it "diffuses teaching at the earliest stages rather than concentrating it on phonics".

In her letter to Mr Rose, Ms Kelly said of "searchlights": "It was right for the time when it was introduced in 1998." But she felt the time was ripe to replace it.

Ministerial sources believe it would have been too big a leap in 1997 to go from a system with no literacy strategy to a tightly regulated programme of using synthetic phonics. They claim the literacy strategy was a success as the percentage of children able to read to the required standard by the time they left primary school has risen from around 60 per cent in 1997 to more than 80 per cent. Mr Rose, though, argues that evidence now shows synthetic phonics "offers the vast majority of beginners the best route to becoming skilled readers".

He cites evidence from a study in Clackmannanshire in Scotland which showed that children taught by this method were three years ahead of their peers in reading by the age of 11.

In his main recommendation, Mr Rose says: "Phonic work for reading and writing should be taught systematically. For most children it will be appropriate for this to begin by the age of five."

But he added: "A good programme of phonic work that is poorly taught is just as likely to limit children's achievement as a well-taught flawed programme."

Ms Kelly said: "Phonics is the key to teaching of early reading." However, teachers could use other methods after the initial crash course in synthetic phonics.

The decision was welcomed by opposition MPs - although fears were expressed by teachers' leaders that she was being too "prescriptive".