Last week I was having a cup of coffee with my Uncle Mikey, an Irishman in his 80s who, like many of my relatives, came to Birmingham in the 1950’s to find work.
I asked him how he would be voting in the election. The look on his face let me know that he thought I should know better and said, “If a tory and the devil were the only two candidates then I would vote for the devil. I’ll be voting Labour.” This attitude is typical of my family and the way I was brought up. We were rock solid Labour and I remember that come election time we put up posters in our window supporting Wilson and Callaghan. When I got old enough I joined the Labour party and was out delivering leaflets for Foot and Kinnock.
The years passed, and I left Birmingham, spent time travelling and ended up in the early 90s moving to Ireland for good. In 2001 I decided on a career change and get the job I always wanted. No, not centre half for Aston Villa, but a primary school teacher. I did my PGCE and got a job in Dublin teaching in an all-boys primary school in one of the most disadvantaged areas of the city.
My first job was as a Learning Support teacher helping 20 boys starting their third year in school. The major difficulty they faced was that after 2 years of schooling they couldn’t read. They knew Letterland characters like Robber Red and Golden Girl, but they couldn’t read words like “rabbit” or “frost” and they thought every long word was “trousers”. So my job was to help them learn to read. I thought back to my PGCE course and realised that we hadn’t been taught how to teach kids to read. The idea seemed to be expose them to words and they’ll pick it up, but I had 20 kids this approach hadn’t worked for and I had to do something.
I knew that words are made up of sounds and letters represent sounds. So I decided to start teaching these things and as if by magic the lads started to read. How was this working so well? I did some research and found Jolly Phonics. By the end of the school year the boys had made an average reading age jump of over two years.
The following year I was given over 30 boys to teach. By then I had also come across an organisation called the Reading Reform Foundation. The RRF showed me the research evidence behind Synthetic Phonics and how what I had discovered by chance was a tool we could all be using to teach reading. By the end of that year the boys had made a jump of nearly three years in their reading ages. This phonics stuff was working and the headteacher decided it had to go into our infant classes and from there the school has moved steadily forward.
The reason I wrote this blog is that last weekend I came over to England to attend the RRF conference in London. I heard fantastic speakers, including Sam Bailey and Josie Mingay, who have seen the ability of good phonics teaching to help children learn to read and have a chance to succeed in school. Also present was Nick Gibb MP, Tory Minister for School Reform. He clearly knew his stuff and showed his clear passionate belief in phonics as a basis for teaching children to read. This conference was his last official act as a minister and he could clearly have been elsewhere, but he wasn’t. One person that wasn’t there was any spokesperson from the Labour Party.
Why was it that my family brought me up solid Labour? The reason is that they believed that the Labour Party would look after them and their families. They believed that Labour would help them and their children in the areas of housing, employment and education. The Labour Party would ensure that their children received the education that they in many cases didn’t get. This was and is my belief too and this is why I cannot understand why the Labour Party had no representative at the conference.
I don’t understand why the Labour Party does not appear to be fully engaged in the issue of how we best teach kids to read. I ,and many others, at the RRF conference have seen phonics open the door to education for the poorest and most disadvantaged children in society. I want the party that supported my family so much to stand with us and ensure that all children can read and have access to the opportunities that our unjust society deprived many of their parents of.