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Last Updated: Friday, 14 March 2008, 16:50 GMT
Phonics revolution steams ahead
By Melissa Jackson
BBC News education reporter

Sir Jim Rose, Andrew Adonis and Ed Balls
Phonics is raising standards in primary schools, say ministers
Put Schools Secretary Ed Balls in front of a class of five-year-olds and what do you get? A lesson in phonics of course.

"Phonics" is the primary school literacy mantra and the driving force behind this government's efforts to raise standards in reading and writing.

The Schools Secretary saw for himself how the system is helping children learn to read and write while visiting a school in the London Borough of Camden.

And he was full of praise for the reading system which has been fully adopted by around 75% of schools in the UK.

But he says that is not enough for a government which puts education at the forefront of its agenda.

Mr Balls' mission is to get 100% of schools "using phonics in a systematic way" throughout their primary education.

He said this would raise standards and boost pupil confidence which would help children succeed in the rest of their school life.

"We are already doing a great deal to make sure all children have the best teaching to help them to read and write from an early age - but we need to press on.

"I hope that this year - which is also the National Year of Reading - will see schools move further forward with this agenda."

At Argyle Primary School, he found children enthusiastically learning to read using synthetic phonics.

For more than 90% of pupils here, English is not their first language and they face a steep learning curve.

Phonics for parents

Head teacher Laura Wynne said: "We are teaching these pupils a modern foreign language and it's English - and it's total immersion."

Their parents are also encouraged to visit the classroom to learn how the phonics system works and help them to learn English too.

Small groups of parents are invited to join their own children in a phonics class and the head says it is proving to be a win/win situation.

Systematic phonics teaching is crucial to raising standards and pupil confidence which will help children succeed in the rest of their school life
Ed Balls, Education Secretary

Ms Wynne said: "Many of our parents have very little literacy of their own and are desperate to help their children.

"Our evidence shows our parents are very grateful for this arrangement.

"It is the impact of what happens at home in the early years that matters most and if we can be a conduit to that we are pleased.

"The first three years of life are the most important for learning and development, and the next three years even more so."

Primary review

Phonics is the buzz word in literacy and Mr Balls said Argyle school exemplified how it was helping to raise standards.

He said: "Ten years ago it was a minority of schools using phonics in a systematic way. Now all schools are using phonics."

Former deputy chief inspector of schools in England Sir Jim Rose and Schools Minister Andrew Adonis joined Mr Balls in the classroom.
Children learning phonics
Sir Jim Rose, Andrew Adonis and Ed Balls join a phonics lesson

Sir Jim is charged with carrying out a review of the primary curriculum on behalf of the government.

He is equally effusive about the role of phonics in early years learning.

He said: "We have moved a long way from phonics being a strategy of last resort.

"But we have got to teach it well if we want the results we are looking for.

"Reading and writing feed off speaking and listening and at this school they're doing that very well."

Phonics' critics

The National Literacy Strategy introduced by the government in 1998 set about improving standards in schools, but its success is questionable.

Last year's primary school national test results in England showed a slight improvement in English, maths and science at key stage 2 , based on Sats tests taken by 11-year-olds.

But other studies draw different conclusions, including a recent international review which found the reading performance of children in England had fallen from third to 19th in the world based on tests carried out on 10-year-olds.

And some critics think we may be pushing children to read and write too soon, leading to a curriculum dominated by literacy and numeracy at the expense of other subjects.

We have moved a long way from phonics being a strategy of last resort
Sir Jim Rose, independent education expert

Does this hold any sway with the head teacher at Argyle Primary?

Ms Wynne said: "In our context, I see it as a school's moral purpose to give our children every opportunity they're entitled to.

"They're entitled to be literate and it's my duty to teach them how to read, write and spell and I will do that by any means necessary."

Sir Jim Rose will not be satisfied that the phonics revolution has been won until all schools are embracing it 100% but he has every confidence that target will be reached

In the meantime his day job is what Mr Balls calls the "most fundamental review of the primary curriculum in a decade".

The aim is to make the curriculum "as good as it can be" for all primary children.

An interim report will be published in October and the final version will be released in March 2009.

This will form the basis of what is taught in schools from September 2011.

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