Learning not to schwa

Perhaps the biggest challenge for me since starting my new job has not been the step change from leadership to teacher, nor the move from state to independent sector, but the move from Junior to Infant (or Prep to Pre-Prep as we would say in my school). And in this move teaching phonics has been the single biggest difference.

The principle of teaching phonics is simple enough: teach phonics well and children will read. They can use their phonic knowledge to decipher, sound out and blend words, becoming increasingly fluent. When I started teaching twenty years ago (admittedly in Year 4) I remember hearing readers and teaching them to look for contextual clues in the pictures or the sentences they had previously read. Not so anymore: phonics is king.

And I thought I had a pretty good grasp of phonics myself, until a teaching assistant pointed out that I sometimes ‘schwa’ my letter sounds. Schwa may be a word you have not come across before. Mr Thorne (my go-to Youtuber for all my phonics teaching) gives a pretty good explanation of the schwa here. If you watch the video you ‘ll see that obviously learning where a sound is a schwa is really important. But I was adding schwas to letters I shouldn’t have been.

For example when I said the sound for the letter ‘S’ I would sometimes say ‘suh’ not ‘ssss’. Or I would say ‘huh’ instead of the breathy ‘hhh’ for the ‘H’.

As I write this, the school leader in me is screaming ‘Teacher Standards’, because as everyone knows a good working knowledge of phonics teaching is part of the 2014 UK Government Teacher Standards document, teachers should:

if teaching early reading, demonstrate a clear understanding of systematic synthetic phonics

Well. I’m working on it.

The problem for me is that I’ve come down to Year 1 from older years. Many year 1 teachers come up to Year 1 from Reception and have taught the phonics knowledge that children learn right at the start. I’m lucky though because I have a helpful and experienced team around me who all have excellent knowledge of the Early Years curriculum and I’ve been enjoying learning off them!

“I want them from one!”

“From seven?” her tone was incredulous, scandalized even. “I want them from one.”

I was telling a member of my school’s nursery staff about the report this week that some educationalists had suggested that we start formal schooling at seven rather than five. Our nursery staff had just finished this year’s home visits where they visit the home of each child attending the nursery to establish initial needs and make a non-threatening link with each family. One or two of the visits they made were particularly eye-opening about the different ways that people live.

I have written before that my school draws families from a community with a range of different expectations of education – some are aspirational, others neutral, a few are quite anti. I can concede that for a good percentage, starting school at 7 could have no discernible impact. However, given that many of our children start Nursery at 3 with a developmental delay of eighteen months, it would be a frightening prospect to see how delayed these children are by the time they are 7.

You see, at my school, and I suspect many other schools, nursery is a big catch-up job. In nursery we desperately try to cram some language and some maths into children who have had a poor diet at home. Whereas middle class households would be giving their children a great start – a language rich environment with positive affirmation, many of our children don’t get that. Nursery helps them catch up. Are we really saying that if we didn’t start school until 7, this problem would be sorted? For all our families?

I think that report misses two huge issues: we’re not Finland and the definition of formal education.

We’re Not Finland

Our education system is often unfavourably compared with the Finnish system. But I don’t think the comparison is fair without comparing the two countries. Firstly there is huge difference in population size. Secondly there is a far wider gap between rich and poor in the UK than in Finland. Thirdly there is much less cultural diversity in Finland. Fourthly there is far less of a legacy of conflict in Finland (unless of course you’re Karelian).

Of these issues, I think the most significant is the difference between rich and poor. The poorer you are the more you need a state education system. The disparity between rich and poor means the education system needs to be better for poorer families. This has underpinned the DfE’s logic behind Pupil Premium Funding (although it is still far too small per child to be really effective). I think taking away schooling for 5-7 year olds from our poorer families would be disastrous

Definition of Formal Education

There is this notion that at the moment children hit five and are immediately sitting in rows with packets of learning being stuffed into their mouths. The reality is far from that. One of the strengths of our system is the individuality of our teachers. Some are formal, some not so much, but all are great and passionate about making a difference for their students. This individuality comes from the autonomy given to schools. We have an education system where each school can serve its local community as it sees fit, within the legal bounds of the national curriculum and the various education acts – but these are far less prescriptive than in many countries.

Are we saying that 5 year olds can never work formally, even for a few minutes? Are we saying that fourteen year olds can never play? When the word formal is being used, do they mean didactic? Do they mean fixed scaffold? Do they mean sitting in rows? I can’t stand these sort of debates where a vague word is used designed to convey some negative image into the readers mind – it just undermines the skill of teachers to determine for themselves how best they should teach.

For my nursery staff, they know they can make a big difference to many of the children that come through the doors. Imagine what they could do if they started when the child was one.