I was at my in-laws last weekend and my son immediately ran over to my husband’s old bookcase, full of stacks of old Enid Blyton and in particular, Jane and Peter books. We curled up on the sofa and read a few, and what struck me was how wildly different they are to the books that I’ve been reading with my son that are sent home from school. We asked expert Sue Palmer on the last changes that have been made. 

Interesting Times: Teaching Children to Read in The 1970’s and 80’s

Ah – 1970! Exactly one hundred years after primary education became compulsory in England with the aim of obtaining ‘the greatest possible quantity of reading, writing and arithmetic for the greatest number’. And just two years after the Plowden Report changed its emphasis with the opening words: ‘At the heart of the educational process lies the child.’

Freedom to teach

As someone who started teaching in the early ’70s, my main memory is of freedom. There was no national curriculum, no tests or targets, no Ofsted inspections. Schools were simply expected to keep up their long-standing commitment to the three Rs, whilst trying to help children stay bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and enthusiastic about learning in general. We were kept up to scratch by ‘advisers’ from the council and occasional spine-chilling visits from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate. But I think teachers’ main motivation was to do the best by the children and their parents.

Most schools taught reading using a mixture of methods. Phonics was popular, but with a far lighter touch than today (we also talked about ‘sounds’ rather than ‘phonemes’ and ‘magic e’ as opposed to ‘the split digraph’). And non-phonic approaches were used too: our reception children used to go home clutching a little tin of cards, each showing an irregularly-spelled word like said or they, to be learned by sight. They also gathered once a week to watch Words and Pictures on the school telly and Magic Pencil showed them how to write the letters (‘Down … and up … and round and down … and flick!’)

Schools used reading schemes like The Village With Three Corners, featuring Billy Bluehat and various-hatted chums, and Ladybird’s Key Words with Peter, Jane and their dog Pat. But children were also encouraged to read picture books and few got through the ’70s without coming across The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Mr Gumpy’s Outing and Where the Wild Things Are. Their teachers had plenty of time to sit them all down and read them stories every single day.

It wasn’t just teachers who were free from pressure. Most children had a pretty carefree childhood – lots of outdoor play, few worries about their appearance (designer trainers hadn’t been invented) and not much to keep them glued to screens beyond kid’s TV programmes like Playschool, The Wombles and a glamorous import from the USA called Sesame Street. They weren’t badgered at an early age about achieving ‘standards’ either – our school was pretty laid back about children’s progress in reading till they were about seven. That’s when, if they weren’t doing well enough, they started going to white-haired Mrs Rudge, the ‘remedial teacher’ twice weekly for extra phonics.

There were, however, a few worrying clouds over these blue remembered hills.

Progressive madness

As the ’70s wore on, some teachers began to take Lady Plowden’s words rather seriously, gradually giving ‘the child’ much greater attention than the three Rs. They argued that, instead of being taught, children should learn through discovery; instead of expecting ticks for correct work, they should be allowed to ‘express themselves’. These ideas had been around since the 1960s in progressive circles (mostly in London) but now they were spreading round the country.

I’m personally rather keen on spelling and grammar so wasn’t thrilled when people suggested that teaching these subjects to my Year 3 class might inhibit their creativity. Still, no one actually tried to stop me so I just carried on (and my Year 3’s writing seemed no less creative than anyone else’s, although a lot easier to understand).

But soon a theory started doing the rounds that children don’t need teaching how to read either. They should simply be ‘immersed’ in lovely picture books and individually supported as they figured out how to do it for themselves. Actually, there’s a grain of truth in this – many children from literate families, who are read to every day and given the odd helping hand by mum or dad, do pick up reading skills with very little effort. But many don’t. And children who scarcely even see a book beyond the school gate usually need quite a lot of systematic teaching before acquire they can read for themselves.

As the ’80s wore on, the Real Books movement gathered steam, having been embraced by many college lecturers and other educational movers and shakers. Teachers all over the country were told not to teach phonics systematically (just to give children the odd phonic nudge on a need-to-know basis), little boxes of sight words disappeared, and the local adviser in my area vowed that ‘We’ll have all the reading schemes out of the schools by Christmas’.

It eventually turned into a sort of collective madness. No one had passed a law, there were no Progressive Blackshirts threatening to beat head teachers up if they didn’t comply, but the Real Books movement became fashionable. More and more schools surrendered to the theory that ‘children learn to read by reading’.

The swing of the pendulum

Mercifully, I was no longer in the classroom by this time but at home with a baby daughter, writing grammar and spelling books in my spare time for the few schools that still dared to buy them. Soon I was also giving private lessons to a swelling stream of children with reading difficulties who turned up at my front door.

It was clear that this couldn’t go on for long. There was already an epidemic of dyslexia and many children in disadvantaged areas of the country were scarcely literate at all. The government decided it had to act. In 1988, exactly twenty years after the Plowden Report, they introduced a National Curriculum (which, in the early days actually advocated a variety of teaching methods for reading), and tests for seven- and eleven-year-olds to ensure the reintroduction of acceptable standards in literacy and numeracy.

Meanwhile, a war of words was being waged in the educational press between progressive academics and ‘traditionalists’, most of whom seemed obsessed with phonics. Teachers, caught in the crossfire, now watched in resigned horror. Those I met were thoroughly fed up with the Real Books stuff they were being fed by local advisers but didn’t dare question it (‘It’s more than my job’s worth,’ one of them told me). On the other hand, they didn’t think endless phonics was the answer. Most just wanted to return to those carefree days when they were free to teach with a ‘mixture of methods’ that worked in their own school.

However, the pendulum was clearly about to swing in the traditionalist direction. In an attempt to influence government policy, I organised a national campaign in 1990 called Balance, trying to register teachers’ concern at polarised views expressed in the press. It didn’t work. The teaching profession had shot itself in the foot, and from now on politicians would be in charge of the show.

So, ever since the ’90s, government has exercised increasing control over every aspect of teaching practice, with a centralised regime of tests, targets, school league tables and – this year – a new edition of the national curriculum that even appals an old grammar-and-spelling freak like me. ‘The child’ has been completely forgotten in the drive for ever-higher national standards.

In fact, I suspect some of the methods currently employed to ‘obtain the greatest possible quantity of reading, writing and arithmetic for the greatest number’ would cause raised eyebrows among those Victorian politicians who launched the system in the first place.

Sue Palmer is a literacy specialist and author of Toxic Childhood: how the modern world is damaging our children … and what we can do about it (Orion, updated second edition 2015)