Wilshaw: ‘Nobody can argue against the benefits of phonics’

The teaching of phonics has been one the most significant factors behind the increasing success of primary schools in England, according to the head of Ofsted.

Debate over the method has become hugely fraught, with opponents of phonics claiming it is tantamount to “child abuse”.

And in a move that is likely to fan the flames, Her Majesty’s chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has stated that “nobody can still convincingly argue that systematic phonics isn’t the most effective method of teaching children to read”.

Sir Michael makes his comments in the first of what will be a monthly series of commentaries on the education system, in which he claims that primary schools are responsible for “highly impressive and encouraging statistics”.

One of the key drivers behind the success of primary schools, he says, is the widespread teaching of synthetic phonics.

“While far from universally popular when first introduced, the emphasis on phonics teaching is certainly bearing fruit,” Sir Michael writes. “As noted recently by schools minister Nick Gibb, the national phonics screening check demonstrates continuing, strong progress in this vital area of learning for the youngest pupils.

He adds: “Surely nobody can still convincingly argue that systematic phonics isn’t the most effective method of teaching children to read. The structured yet engaging way in which this is being done is something my inspectors increasingly report.”

The chief inspector also points to the teaching of spelling, punctuation and grammar as another important factor behind the primary success story. But such benefits are being lost by the time pupils enter secondary education, he says.

In his own blog, Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, refutes Sir Michael’s claims, stating that the relative stability of the primary sector is a major contributor to the success of schools.

“Could it be that politicians’ desire to look busy with reform could actually be one of the things standing in the way of a truly successful education system? It is notable, for instance, that the steady gains in literacy that we’re seeing at the end of primary actually precede the introduction of the government’s flagship phonics screening check. The chief inspector could usefully draw attention to the price of excessive of change.”

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