Schools minister Nick Gibb claims to be swayed only by evidence. He cited two teaching methods which he says were ‘evidence-based’ in the Commons on 19 December: systematic synthetic phonics and maths mastery. He wants all English schools to adopt these approaches.
But the evidence doesn’t just support synthetic phonics but ANY method of teaching phonics provided it is presented in a planned and systematic manner. Evidence summarised in the Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit, which is praised by Gibb as a reliable source, makes no distinction between different types of phonics instruction. The Toolkit recognises that phonics as an overall method ‘can be an important component in the development of early reading skills’ but vocabulary development, comprehension and spelling were equally important. Gibb’s high-profile support of just one method of phonics teaching underplays the importance of the development of these important skills.
The Department for Education offered a matched-funding scheme for systematic phonics materials during the Coalition years. This has proved very profitable for firms providing these including one, Read, Write Inc, whose director, Ruth Miskin, was an adviser to the DfE on the primary curriculum. Her involvement raised questions of conflict of interest.
Gibb is also a fan of maths mastery. The EEF Toolkit found ‘mastery learning is a learning strategy with good potential, particularly for low attaining students’ which could lead to five months progress in a school year compared with ‘traditional’ methods. The EEF warned however, that studies into maths mastery showed results tended to cluster at two points: ‘little or no impact’ or ‘impact of up to six months’ gain’. In other words, mastery could be very effective or it could have no effect.
Analysis of the evidence by the Institute of Education on behalf of the EEF found pupils in schools using maths mastery made the equivalent of ‘approximately two months’ additional progress’. It wasn’t possible to conclude whether this small progress would not have occurred by chance, the analysists wrote.
Gibb remains obstinately stuck to maths mastery and synthetic phonics. But the evidence suggests there are other, equally effective, strategies. His constant promotion of these two methods suggests he is unwilling to consider any other methods which might jolt him from his stubborn support. This isn’t following the evidence, it’s following the prejudice. Worse, he's using his dogged adherence to particular methods to impose his will on English schools.
FOOTNOTE Despite his insistence that he always looks at the evidence, Nick Gibb ‘inadvertently’ cited flawed data in the Commons in July. The statistics relating to PISA international test results for the UK in the year 2000 have been known to have been faulty for years. This doesn’t seem to have made much impact on our schools minister.