John Bald: Misbehaviour in classrooms is often due to a failure to teach children to read

Behind most disorder is the idea of anxiety. A great deal of that is caused by a feeling that the pupil can’t do their work.

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.

Two of last year’s most important comments on education came in December. The first, in Amanda Spielman’s presentation of her annual report, was on the importance of teaching early reading and fluent decoding through systematic synthetic phonics. Failure to do this, she argued, leads to boredom, higher rates of exclusion, and criminality. Her talk is well worth reading in full.

The second was Damian Hinds’ tweet that “every school and college should be one for young people with special educational needs,” backed by £350m of additional funding. The links between the two are important, if not always obvious.

When I started, in 1973, additional support in schools was focused on reading – known as “remedial reading” – and behaviour was a “pastoral” issue. I didn’t hear the term “autism”, far less “Asberger’s” or “Tourette’s” until the late 1980s. A headteacher informed me that he had been a member of a government committee that had concluded that “dyslexia” did not exist. This situation has changed. Behaviour, particularly extreme behaviour, takes up huge amounts of time and resources that could otherwise be devoted to learning, while reading or spelling difficulties are invariably labelled “dyslexia”, usually on the basis of formulaic assessments that ignore any other cause, however obvious.

Behind most assessments of behavioural difficulty or disorder is the idea of anxiety. We are all anxious at times, but I have met several cases in which the anxiety is such as to prevent a person from learning at all. Some of it is social, exacerbated by smartphones that give bullies 24 hour access to their victims, but a great deal is caused by a feeling that the pupil can’t do their work, usually for the reasons described by the chief inspector.

An example is a left-handed pupil, who was deliberately left to her own devices in learning to write, and given an ipad for all of her work. Arriving in secondary school, she could not do her work because she couldn’t write. She refused to go to school for almost three years, and has only recently begun to attend hospital school, where she is being given the teaching she needed years earlier, and so has a chance of getting the grades she should always have been able to achieve, It is, incidentally, easy to adjust the teaching of writing to meet the needs of left-handed pupils, and the national curriculum for English requires it.

In the early 1990s, before I became a Conservative, I alerted Labour’s front bench to the cycle described by Spielman, which even then was easy to detect from published research evidence. It was equally easy to see that guessing game approaches to reading, combined with mixed ability teaching, were preventing large numbers of children from developing the literacy skills they needed to approach secondary school with any confidence. My progressive colleagues at the time had tried to solve the problem by basing education on first-hand experience rather than literacy, and by following Plowden’s disastrous policy of removing textbooks from primary schools.

As a result, children who did not have a rich reading environment at home, did not have one in school either, and so reached secondary school without the range and fluency that they needed in order to make progress. It would have been hard to find a person less qualified to put in charge of education than the late, well-intentioned, Lady Plowden, but there is a long-standing British tradition of taking people who do not know about something and putting them in charge of it.

Spielman’s analysis should be the starting point of a much larger process of reform, based ultimately on the growing evidence from brain research, summarised in Blakemore and Frith’s “The Learning Brain”, and more recently in the early chapters of Mina Conkbayir’s Early Childhood and Neuroscience. Learning involves the creation, consolidation, and extension of connections between brain cells, and happens when teaching presents issues in a way that makes this happen. The starting point, provided by the early connection of sounds and letters through phonics, needs to be extended and developed in junior and secondary schools by reversing the policy of Plowden and her acolytes and putting reading and writing at the centre of everything a school does, using discussion and explanation to build understanding and spoken language at the same time. Schools that do this – see the 2005 Ofsted report at this link  – break the cycle of underachievement identified by Ofsted. It is time all the others did too.