Synthetic phonics – a plea for teacher autonomy

By Fiona Read, Head of Bedales Nursery & Pre-prep, Dunannie and Harriet Rhodes, Teaching Associate, University of Cambridge

All children deserve great teachers. This is something that no one can or will ever argue about, although what exactly that means in practice can be hard to pin down these days. In recent years, teachers have felt increasingly stifled by central prescription and ‘one size fits all’ approaches to teaching.

In January, researchers from the Institute of Education at UCL published the results of a study into the way that primary school children in England are taught to read, and concluded that an emphasis on synthetic phonics is inflexible, unfair and fails children. We were not surprised by this conclusion.

In synthetic phonics, children are first encouraged to pronounce the individual sounds in words, and then to blend them together to make words. Supporters claim benefits in terms of literacy, and particularly so for disadvantaged pupils. Government has been heavily invested in their use since their endorsement by (then) education minister Michael Gove, who introduced a phonics screening check for all children in year one (five or six year olds) to establish progress.

However, use of synthetic phonics, or at least the extent of their use, has been controversial. Critics have argued that phonics training only helps children to perform in tests, and that it does not develop understanding or encourage a love of reading. Research shows that teachers feel pressured by the compulsory screening check, with a survey of teachers finding that synthetic phonics was their main focus for teaching reading.

Importantly, the UCL researchers argue that claims for the effectiveness of synthetic phonics are not underpinned by the latest evidence. Their study was no light undertaking, involving analysis of multiple systematic reviews, experimental trials and data from international tests such as PISA (the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment). The results must be taken seriously, and not least the finding that the successful teaching of reading in England may have declined since the adoption of synthetic phonics.

In early years, establishing a literacy-rich play environment is a prerequisite to pre-literacy skills – young children develop literacy such as listening to others, representing their ideas, narrating their play and experiencing the pleasure of seeing their thoughts transformed into a structure populated by their imagination.  Phonics is a useful tool as a part of a greater whole, but limiting childrens’ experiences of learning to read to an adult-directed, dry and reductive approach is counter intuitive. 

Instead, the educationalist Helen Tovey says “Learning should be joyous, meaningful and relevant. It should inspire further learning, or it is nothing”. And this is particularly true of learning to read. Through the use of techniques such as Helicopter Stories (Trisha Lee’s interpretation of Vivian Gussin Paley’s Storytelling and Story Acting curriculum), young children become sensitive to narrative structures and develop new vocabulary, helping their reading development and comprehension skills.

We know that children learn best when something pricks their curiosity and is playful – using real children’s books that speak to their experiences and enable them to encounter different emotions, subjects, vocabulary, rhyme and rhythm will unlock a lifetime love of reading far more effectively than any reading scheme. Children are motivated to read if it is fun. Dr Seuss wrote The Cat in The Hat in response to concerns about children’s literacy. His imaginative and silly stories are still effective ways of teaching children how to play with language and learn to read. 

The report’s authors acknowledge that there are some strengths to England’s current approach, but they are concerned – as are we – by the demise of a balanced approach to the teaching of reading, and by the straitjacket government’s enthusiasm for phonics places upon teachers. Prof Dominic Wyse, one of the authors, explains: “Our view is that the system doesn’t give teachers enough flexibility to do what they think is best for their pupils, nor to encourage pupils to enjoy reading.” There are many studies suggesting that children who are taught to read through synthetic phonics can be turned off reading for pleasure and meaning.

No less worrying is that all of this is symptomatic of a wider trend. The profession as a whole is consistently excluded from policy making by a DfE which relies on consultation with very few educationalists. Meanwhile, teachers routinely report that they are disempowered, and unable to make decisions affecting their children. In this case, teachers are aware of the best reading strategy for each child, but as they feel compelled to replace broader English lessons with narrower phonics in order for children to meet the tests so they take another step towards becoming professionals without agency (and a far cry from the great teachers we all agree that children deserve).

The UCL report underlines the urgent need for those in the DfE to listen to the experts, and the open letter to the Education Secretary from educators and academics, urging a reassessment of the place of phonics based on the evidence and the greater autonomy of teachers, is one we wholeheartedly endorse. Teachers should be able to apply their own judgement as to whether phonics and other balanced reading approaches are best for their students. Pupils’ comprehension and enjoyment of texts, as well as phonics, should be the focus of our efforts in the classroom – a place where we, not politicians, should be making the calls.

Return of the Three Schools’ Concert

By Doug McIlwraith, Director of Music

One of the most difficult music events to organise during the pandemic was the Three Schools’ Concert. However, we managed to find time for musicians and singers from all three schools to meet and work together this week and the result was a very enjoyable concert with some wonderful music and a great feeling of community spirit.

Ben Harlan was inspirational in leading the orchestra in music by Purcell and Dvorak and this included many players form Dunhurst and Bedales. Dunhurst music scholars Tommy Hornsby and Eliot Santos (both Block 2) gave stunning solo performances on the cello and violin, demonstrating the musical ambition inherent in the artistic ethos at Bedales, and Bedales music scholar Leela Walton (6.1) gave a very mature and emotional rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Canzonettafrom his Violin Concerto. It was particularly wonderful to hear from Leela as she is one of our many musicians who joined in Dunannie and now lead the music in the senior school.

Music from our contemporary musicians demonstrated the variety of musical interests that we nurture at Bedales and Dunannie brought the house down with their song Baby Beluga which told the story of a little white whale. Singers form all schools then joined to sing Stand By Me by Ben E King with a solo from Joel Edgeworth and the concert ended with some rousing singing by everyone of the four gospel favourites.  

We thought it was important for the Bedalians to inspire the younger musicians but it was clear on this occasion that that influence worked from the bottom up and the talents and enthusiasms of the Dunhurst and Dunannie pupils had a miraculous and enervating effect on our older musicians. We look forward to more three schools events in the near future as they are a wonderful way of celebrating what the Bedales community has to offer.

The Harmony Project – evolving and growing the Dunannie curriculum

By Fiona Read, Head of Bedales Nursery & Pre-prep, Dunannie

The world is slowly reopening. As I write, those of us in England are anticipating being allowed to mix indoors once more, to enjoy again the human contact we used to take for granted, and to travel – albeit in a limited way for now.

It is exciting and welcome, and also a time to think carefully about how we want, and need, the world to be in the future. Central to this is our relationship to the natural world, with the COVID pandemic having underlined that we simply do as we please at our peril.

So, why should any of this be a concern for a pre-prep school head as she thinks about her school’s curriculum? One answer is that children are inheriting from us adults a world in which the pressures we place upon it mean it is more likely to bite us back. Consequently, exploring our relationship with nature and understanding the consequences of the choices we make are important. For example, COVID is widely understood to have originated at the uneasy interface of human and wild animal populations, and to have spread quickly through burgeoning urban populations, and our ever-growing appetite for migration – these are both the products of our age, and associated with a range of other ecological and human problems. If we are to avoid repeats of the pandemic, as well as other unwanted impacts, we need to rethink how we do things. Today’s children will be the next generation of problem solvers and will need to find creative solutions to the global challenges they will face in the future.

At least in part, that is why Dunannie has incorporated the Harmony Project into its framework for learning. Inspired by the vision of HRH The Prince of Wales and designed to help schools develop a curriculum inspired by nature, the project explores how applying principles of nature – such as interdependence and adaptation – can guide us in the ways we live both individually and collectively.

An understandable response might be that this is a little young for children to be grappling with such ideas. However, recent protests underline the importance of a healthy planet to young people, and at Dunannie we have been struck by the interest and understanding of our children. We don’t need to introduce them to the idea that there is a relationship between the choices we make and their wider impacts – they already know.

Equally important is that our adoption of the Harmony Project does not happen from a standing start. The Bedales ethos as established by founder John Badley – ‘Head, Hand and Heart’ – prescribes an education for the whole person, combining the academic, the practical and the social. Accordingly, we already take every opportunity to get children learning outside, which they love, with most, if not all, subjects benefitting from the connection. The time they traditionally spend identifying birds, growing vegetables and caring for lambs is as much a part of them growing into their adult selves as is time spent in the classroom and library.

Curriculum and formal learning aside, our application of the principles of nature through the Harmony Project can better ensure our pupils’ wellbeing and connection to their world – a particularly hot topic right now. In 2020, the re-opening of schools saw a renewed appeal for government to support the use of outdoor learning in response to the pandemic. In a letter to the Chair of the Education Select Committee, the group ‘Our Bright Future’, which included representatives from the Wildlife Trusts, the National Youth Agency, the Centre for Sustainable Energy and Friends of the Earth, identified recovery from the pandemic as an opportunity to reassess “how we socialise, work and learn”. Research shows that time spent learning outdoors and interacting with the natural world can raise children’s educational attainment, resilience, and wellbeing. The group proposed that this should be the subject of a government inquiry, with a view to making outdoor learning part of the regular curriculum.  We are far from alone, then.

This may sound rather ‘high concept’ and a big change, but in practice it need be neither. Rather, the Harmony Project brings additional focus to many of the things that we already do and love, and will see us do more. Ours is a broad and flexible curriculum and, shaped by the interests and responses of our children, it will evolve and grow in true Bedales tradition –learning with a cloak of fun.

More information on the Harmony Project can be found here. There is more about Bedales Pre-prep, Dunannie here.

Bedales scientists support Dunannie STEM event

By Liz Stacy, Head of Chemistry

Last Saturday was Bedales Pre-prep, Dunannie’s STEM themed Open Morning. Five of our Block 5 students – Rhiannon Griffith, Milo Whittle, Ben Bradberry, Mabel Watson and Athena Lucas – filled their lab coat pockets full of chocolates (the one and only time they will be allowed to put food in a lab coat!) and headed down to Dunannie to help the children with their science experiments.

There was an amazing range of experiments on offer, from making lava lamps using immiscible liquids and building circuits to power buzzers, to programming the Beebot robots to move and light up on command and looking at field line patterns using magnets. The students were tasked with judging each exhibit on presentation and also the scientific knowledge of the children manning the experiment. They also fielded questions from prospective parents about what studying at Bedales was like and the excellent opportunities on offer for students interested in pursuing science. I thought Milo was maybe a bit harsh giving one small six-year-old five out of ten for scientific knowledge – he did award a lot of chocolate though!

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Memorable third annual Three Schools’ Concert

Three-Schools-Concert

By Neil Hornsby, Head of Contemporary Music
Photo by Abby Hilton, 6.1

The Thursday before half term saw a wonderful musical collaboration between Bedales, Dunhurst and Dunannie in the third annual Three Schools’ Concert. A packed Lupton Hall witnessed a night like no other with 83 students taking part, ranging in age from seven all the way up to 18.

There were performances featuring each school, including Head Girl Lara Rippinger’s take on Esperanza Spalding’s I Know You Know, Group 3 Dunhurst student Eliot Santos’ show-stopping performance of Karl Bohm’s Perpetual Motion and the Dunannie Year 3 choir’s wonderful performance of Under the Sea from The Little Mermaid.

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Bedales celebrates International Day

By Tristan Wilson, Head of Languages

Photos by Abby Hilton and Henry Kingsley-Pallant, 6.1

International Day was celebrated across the three schools this year, and over more than one day. Celebrations kicked off last Monday when international 6.2 students led the assembly at Bedales Pre-prep, Dunannie, where they taught the children some words in their native languages, and learnt about the children’s own cultures heritage. At Bedales’ assembly later that evening, we watched a video put together by 6.2 Dons, which included various students and teachers reading poetry and reciting proverbs in different languages.

On Thursday, which was officially International Day, the action started before lunch in the Quad, where Bedales students entertained Dunannie children by writing their names in foreign scripts and other activities, such as making Japanese ‘Kabuto’ Samurai helmets out of newspaper. Afterwards, students shared language and cuisine from around the world, which included everything from Arabic to Chinese, and Tibetan steamed dumplings to ancient Roman food. Mary Wang won the National Dress Competition with her beautiful Chinese dress and we had a Beastie Boys song performed in Arabic by our very own band, the Upstanding Gentlemen.

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