I think this blog might be relevant beyond a primary context. For those of you who aren’t interested in phonics teaching, please bear with me. I promise this isn’t just about phonics…
A few years back, I was offered the chance to return to year 2 after nearly a decade in key stage 2. I’d taught phonics in reception and key stage 1 at previous schools, and I had recently taught phonics with small groups of children in key stage 2. But when it came to teaching phonics to 30 children at a time, I knew I was out of practice.
I arranged a meeting with the literacy co-ordinator to find out what I needed to know. I was reminded about the four-part lesson structure that I was familiar with from Letters and Sounds, and I downloaded a hotchpotch of resources from the literacy coordinator’s memory stick onto my laptop. The literacy coordinator was swamped with her responsibilities, so this brief chat was the full extent of the structured support that I received before teaching phonics to a whole class for the first time in years.
At the start of the following term, I began teaching my year 2 class. It took me a while to get back into the swing of working with 6-year olds, but I was fairly satisfied with the lessons I taught, with one exception: phonics. I finished most days with a nagging sense that it wasn’t quite working. I did what I could to get better, relying on the advice of my colleagues, but this took longer than it should have. Even once I was teaching phonics adequately, I felt that I’d let down the kids up to that point. I couldn’t help but wonder how much better off they would have been with the more experienced teacher next door.
Fast forward to now, and things have changed. If you are teaching phonics in an English primary school, you are almost certain to have been given a structure to follow and resources to use. You might even have been given training in the underlying theory behind word recognition. Sounds good, right? Mostly.
Why only ‘mostly’? Well, I find it hard not to wonder about the expert teacher next door and how she would feel about being required to follow the precise steps of her school’s prescribed phonics scheme. My best guess is that she would largely do as she was asked, and her teaching would be slightly weakened as a result. Where possible, she would continue to furtively use the full range of her expertise, not least her judgement of how activities could be adapted to match her own capabilities and the needs of her class. But inevitably she would feel frustrated. Her expertise had been hard won, so not being able to fully exploit it would feel understandably galling.
I know that feeling. The same school introduced a maths scheme that was relatively prescriptive. As a fairly experienced maths teacher, I didn’t like it, and I reckon that – in the short term at least – my teaching was slightly poorer as a result. I railed against anything that even slightly limited my ability to maximise my impact. The school quietly gave me as much flexibility as they could, but I was still aggrieved whenever this wasn’t possible.
But I felt different once I was required to take on some responsibility for the quality of teaching across an entire school. Suddenly, my first priority was universal adequacy, even where that placed constraints on the most expert teachers in the school. I saw the value of consistency as pupils moved between classes. I saw the challenges of setting different expectations for different teachers, especially where levels of expertise didn’t appear to align with a teacher’s classroom experience. And all too quickly, I let myself forget the frustrations of the more expert teacher, to the point where I almost pretended that these frustrations didn’t exist.
I am convinced it is a sensible for schools to be required to pick a phonics scheme that has been checked to ensure that it supports all teachers who use it. I am equally convinced that it’s sensible for school leaders to ask teachers to use these schemes consistently. But sensible doesn’t mean flawless. It’s easy to tell staff that a new scheme or a new structure will quickly improve the practice of every individual teacher, but often this just isn’t true. It’s much harder to explain to staff that you think that consistent application of something new will elicit a net benefit despite compromises that will affect some teachers more than others.
Some might argue that these compromises don’t need to exist, that we can offer support to less expert teachers and unmitigated autonomy to those who can make the most of it. This is, of course, the ideal situation, but often it isn’t possible. For one thing, there are limitations on school leaders’ ability to recognise expertise. There are also subtle gains from consistency that compound: teachers can better support each other, professional development can be better targeted and interventions can build more readily on routines that are familiar to all pupils. But such consistency tends to involve compromise.
One such compromise is that there is a level of expertise that some argue is only acquired by capable individuals being left to learn the hard way, working things out for themselves. No one would argue against support for new teachers, but being required at some point to find your own way can perhaps build a level of resilience and nous that might otherwise not manifest itself. I feel that I learned most about teaching maths when I was planning using nothing but the national curriculum and my reflections on my previous teaching. However, there is survivorship bias at play when teachers talk about what they gained from such experiences. And there are obviously costs to pupils’ learning while teachers are learning the hard way. These costs are often intolerable to those whose central priority is to ensure that all teaching across a school at any given moment is at least adequate.
And this isn’t just about phonics schemes or maths programmes. The compromises around consistency and autonomy play out in every area of the sector, from curriculum products to behaviour management to mentoring under the Early Career Framework. I think there is a tendency to downplay the frustration of experienced teachers who feel boxed in by the requirements of consistency. This frustration often finds its expression in narrow complaints that reflect a broader issue. I suspect that the pushback against systematic phonics teaching and detailed curriculum resources, for example, is frequently the conduit through which stifled voices within the profession try to make themselves heard. It can be tempting to respond to the surface details and to seize upon misconceptions while ignoring the underlying source of frustration. It’s certainly convenient to do so, and I know that I’ve been guilty of this.
We need honest conversations about the compromises that are deemed necessary, ones that will allow us to include on the balance sheet all of those often-hidden items like the demotivation of more experienced colleagues and the potential loss to the profession of their expert presence in the classroom. While total agreement is unlikely, greater openness about these compromises might help us to better identify where the cost of consistency is genuinely worth paying and where it might just be too high.
Thanks for reading. I don’t tend to write many of these blog posts that go beyond specific aspects of teaching, not least because it’s much harder to be confident about this sort of thing, and it’s easy to come across as patronising or foolish or both. Feel free to tell me that I’m wrong and why. I hope you’ll forgive me if you vehemently disagree with what I’ve written. If it helps, I am very much open to changing my mind.