Back to basics

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In 1993, John Major, the British Prime Minister, stood up at the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool and announced his ‘back to basics’ campaign. It was meant to be a call for a return to ‘neighbourliness, decency and courtesy’ and a focus on education and the economy, but it became conflated in the media and popular imagination with social conservatism and family values.

Inevitably, there followed a string of tawdry sex scandals involving senior figures in the Conservative government before finally, long after Major’s political demise, we all unwillingly learnt about his own affair with Edwina Currie – an affair that had fizzled out long before he ever stepped onto that Blackpool stage.

Rank hypocrisy? I’m not sure. I’m of the old-fashioned opinion that what politicians do to improve public services is far more important than whether they have consensual affairs and I’m not certain Major ever launched the kind of moral campaign that justifies accusations of cant.

But phrases like this morph in meaning and cause trouble in the process.

Take ‘no excuses’ charter schools in the U.S. The term used to mean that educators would not use a child’s deprived background as an excuse for academic failure, but it has been shifted and misinterpreted into something quite different. Say ‘no excuses’ now and people think of a ‘zero tolerance’ behaviour policy. I think neither term – ‘no excuses’ or ‘zero tolerance’ – is an adequate or fair description of a complex school environment and so I’d now like to put them both in the bin, please.

And while we are on, let’s do the same with ‘back to basics’ when referring to Australian education. There are two reasons.

The first is personal and perhaps parochially British. The term makes me think of 1990s politicians getting their jollies and so reminds me of something I wish I never knew about in the first place. Think of the wincing, squirming discomfort that is causes me. Think of my embarrassment.

No? That’s not enough?

Alright then. How about this: There is nothing basic about good teaching.

Just take reading. English has a deep orthography that means that different phonemes can be represented by a number of different graphemes, with the same grapheme sometimes representing different phonemes. If you are taken through the planned learning sequence of a systematic synthetic programme such as Sounds Write, as I have been, then you will undoubtedly marvel at the structured way it introduces grapheme-phoneme-correspondences and how it cycles back to reinforce and embed that knowledge. It also becomes clear just how well-trained and knowledgeable the teachers need to be.

‘Back to basics’ is not just a trite three-word slogan, it is a falsehood that devalues the complex work of teachers.

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6 thoughts on “Back to basics

  1. I think you’ve used a very poor example here, Greg. Sounds Write, like every other phonics programme I’ve seen and indeed the Wave 3 intervention I wrote myself, already have systematic methods of teaching English orthography set out so that it takes relatively little training to use them. Our programme has been a success largely because it is simple enough so that TAs can use it effectively after a 45 minute briefing, yet it still has produced excellent results in independent trials conducted by two local authorities. In fact, TAs are more likely to use it effectively because they are less likely to have been trained to think that direct instruction is inferior to making children work things out for themselves.

    1. With respect, Tom, you know nothing about Sounds-Write, how it is structured, nor how it is used in schools. No knowledgeable practitioner working in schools to teach reading and spelling to children from the moment they begin school believes for one moment that a TA can be taught to teach the complexities of the English spelling system and how it relates to the English language in a forty-five minute briefing.

  2. Every time I hear a politician use the phrase “back-to-basics” when advocating (more or less) a return to explicit instruction and a knowledge-rich curriculum, I just feel to burying my head in my hands for a few hours. Among other things, it’s just such an easy target for the progressivists.

  3. Thinking about this in general – can you think of a catchphrase or slogan that didn’t turn into a shibboleth?
    If the original phrase worked well it will get repurposed where it doesn’t belong to make something else sound better – gilt by association.

    If it worked poorly it will be repurposed to use guilt by association.

    By this theory all catchphrases have a limited useful lifetime and the more extremely good or bad they are as in working well or badly the shorter the lifetime.

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