Education Prime Minister?

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers his Leader's speech at the Conservative Party Conference on Oct. 2, 2019, in Manchester, England.
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers his Leader’s speech at the Conservative Party Conference on Oct. 2, 2019, in Manchester, England.

Americans unhappy with the state of the education debate in the presidential campaign may want to keep an eye on Great Britain, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson is making schools and learning an important part of his political message.

“I have been prime minister for only seventy days but I have seen so many things that give cause for hope,” Johnson said October 2 in remarks to a conference in Manchester of his Conservative Party, citing, “Schools where standards of reading are rising through the use of synthetic phonics.”

Johnson criticized the British Labour Party — “fratricidal anti-Semitic Marxists,” he called them — and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, for their stance on education issues. “He wants to ban private schools and expropriate their property—even though it would cost the taxpayer seven billion pounds to educate the kids. He wants to stamp out excellence in schools by banning Ofsted, the inspectors who ensure that schools are safe for our children.”

The accusation that Labour wants to ban private schools and expropriate their property is not an exaggeration; Labour recently approved precisely that policy, which has also been floated by some here in America. As for Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education, a 2013 Education Next article, “The School Inspector Calls,” reported that its inspection ratings “can aid in distinguishing between more- and less-effective schools, even after controlling for test scores and various other school characteristics.”

“The best way to level up and to expand opportunity is to give every kid in the country a superb education,” Johnson said. “So that’s why we’re levelling up education funding across the country, the schools that have fallen furthest behind now seeing the biggest increases, so every child has the chance they deserve to express their talents.”

When Johnson announced in August his proposed school funding changes, the Financial Times described them as “substantially above the expected rate of inflation,” an increase of 6 percent in 2020-2021 followed by nearly five percent in each of the following two years. “We are providing additional funding now and for the future for every school, with those historically underfunded receiving the greatest increase,” the newspaper quoted Johnson as saying.

Vice President Biden, a Democrat running for president here in the U.S., has pledged to triple federal Title I funding to schools in districts that serve high numbers or concentrations of poor children. President Trump has proposed a federal tax credit for donations to state education scholarship programs. Neither one, though, at least yet, is going around campaigning on phonics instruction, synthetic or otherwise.

Johnson’s interest in phonics dates back to at least 2010, when, as mayor of London he wrote a Foreword to a report issued by Miriam Gross of the Centre for Policy Studies, “So Why Can’t They Read.”

“I know that many teachers will disagree with some of her conclusions, and many will dissent from her vehement endorsement of synthetic phonics as opposed to whole word recognition or the mixture of methods advocated in the old National Literacy Strategy,” Johnson wrote then. “This is a controversy that has been raging for so long, and with such theological intensity, that it is surely time to resolve it once and for all.”

The Gross report concedes that synthetic phonics is “a rather off-putting term,” but explained, “you synthesise, ie blend, letters and sounds. The name makes what is the more straightforward process sound the more complex. A better name for it might have been ‘letters and sounds.’” The report also says the approach had won the support of a previous prime minister, Tony Blair, who led the Labour Party when it was more centrist. Blair defined it in a 1998 speech as “the skilled process of teaching children how the 44 sounds in the English language are represented by a letter or group of letters.”

The phonics push in Great Britain was earlier the topic of an Education Exchange podcast hosted by Education Next Senior Editor Paul E. Peterson.

Some American conservatives may balk at the idea of a central government dictating a teaching method nationwide, even if it is evidence-backed. British conservatives, even before Johnson, though, have been less resistant. As Nick Gibb, minister for school standards and minister for equalities, explained it in a 2017 Facebook post:

One of the most controversial reforms introduced by the Conservative-led Government in 2010 was our decision to require schools to use phonics to teach children to read…. When we came into office, therefore, one of the first things we did was to change the National Curriculum, explicitly requiring schools to teach reading using phonics. We funded training and phonics materials for schools. And, most controversial of all, we introduced a test for all six-year-olds, called the Phonics Screening Check…. Extraordinarily – despite all of the evidence in favour of phonics we faced opposition from various lobby groups: those opposed to testing; professors of education who had built a career out of the “look and say” approach; and the teaching unions.

Here in the U.S., conservatives did attempt a national phonics push back during the George W. Bush administration. Reading First, a billion-dollar-a-year element of the No Child Left Behind Act signed by President George W. Bush, was hailed by secretary of education Margaret Spellings as “the most effective and successful reading initiative in the nation’s history,” as a 2008 Education Next article, “The Reading First Controversy,” reported. Yet that program was not reauthorized; instead it was replaced with a much smaller program.

If Boris Johnson does manage to sustain a nationwide phonics emphasis in the United Kingdom, or even to make space for it on a political agenda crowded with polarizing issues such as Brexit, perhaps it could inspire a return of the reading issue to American politics.

Ira Stoll is managing editor of Education Next.

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