Vale Sir Jim Rose, whose life’s work contributed to the betterment of teaching reading and consequently children’s lives worldwide.
He was the author of the UK’s famed “Rose Report” in 2006 which led to vital changes in the way reading was taught in Britain.
I interviewed him back in 2018. Here is the transcript:
Sir Jim, author of the Rose Report and tireless campaigner for high quality literacy instruction, agreed to answer some questions about national inquiries into literacy. By way of personal introduction, Jim said the following:
“It was when I became headteacher of a newly opened inner-city school which took in many immigrant children from Pakistan, and especially Indian children from Idi Amin’s Uganda regime that I became intensely interested in teaching literacy and meeting the language needs of children whose home language was other than English. By various means we boosted listening and speaking skills, for example, through drama, music, science and PE. We introduced a newly hatched, intensive reading scheme called ‘Breakthrough to Literacy’, which was well-research and ahead of its time in teaching children how the alphabet works. It included decodable books. All of that worked very well, which I suppose persuaded me of the mantra that phonics is essential but not sufficient.”
1. What kind of impetus is required to bring about a national inquiry? Bi-partisan support? Policy promises? Lobbying?
Sir Jim: Sometimes the most powerful impetus arises from the stark realization that ‘our kids’ are getting a raw deal as shown, for example, by international comparisons; a widening achievement gap; persistently poor performance by disadvantaged (SES) groups.
2. Three major inquiries have take place in the anglophone world in the last 20 years, but the recommendations have been widely ignored. How is this justified?
Sir Jim: Major inquiries make advisory recommendations – they do not make policy decisions. It’s a case of ‘advisers advise but ministers decide’ (Margaret Thatcher). The latter will always say their decisions are subject to competing priorities and costs.
3. Is this a common fate of inquiries or is it peculiar to the teaching of literacy only?
Sir Jim: Doubtful that it is only literacy. England has had to wake up to the weak position of numeracy compared to our international counterparts. We are now promoting ‘Singapore Mathematics’ and making the teaching of times tables mandatory.
4. Why don’t recommendations contain provision for long-term follow-up?
Sir Jim: Some do attempt to discern value for money recommendations in the longer term as follow-up but this is not a precise science.
5. Do you think legislation regarding science-based reading methods ought to be enacted? Why? Why not?
Sir Jim: Purists might say that science by definition is always provisional hence it is prudent to set out the evidence and recommend a direction of travel rather than enact it. Mandates can be damaging if they fail to respond to new evidence that calls for change.
6. What is your view of teacher unions? Could they be better utilized as a force to drive change?
Sir Jim: Unions rarely sing from the same hymn sheet when seeking to influence change. Size seems to matter in this respect – in England the biggest union banged the biggest drum against any threat to weaken teachers’ professional hold over how things should be taught rather than what things should be taught. If, say, phonic work is seen as one ‘method’ among others that is a how to teach question. If it is seen as a corpus of knowledge, skills and understanding then it is a question of what to teach. No doubt unions can be a force for change – the issue is how to get them to do so in the right direction.
7. What do you think of the view that adherence to foundational phonics principles in literacy teaching is typically regarded, by its opponents, to be a right-wing construct?
Sir Jim: It may be perceived as a ‘right-wing construct’. However, whether left or right, at the extremes these are highly likely to be more of a face-saving construct by those who have led from an ideologically biased view of how children learn in the early years. For them, a huge professional U-turn would simply be too much to bear.
Out of all the English-speaking nations, England is the furthest ahead in terms of reading reform. All schools in England are mandated to use systematic synthetic phonics for early literacy instruction and the leading phonics programs are well written and robust.
In the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), England has risen steadily since 2006 and outranked the US, Canada and Australia in 2016.
You will be sadly missed, Sir Jim.