Government's 'obsession' with phonics is driven by need to help working-class white boys

The underperformance of white working-class boys in England’s education system is what has driven the government’s “obsession” with reading and phonics, the schools minister has said.

Nick Gibb told a Westminster Hall debate today that a belief that children’s educational background has more of an impact than their social or cultural background was the “essential philosophy” behind the reforms of the last decade of Tory governments, and particularly their move towards a knowledge-rich curriculum.

The debate was called by Ben Bradley, the Conservative MP for Mansfield, who recently called on the government to stop forcing all pupils down an academic path.

During the debate, Bradley reeled off statistics which show that by age five, white boys from disadvantaged backgrounds are 13 per cent behind disadvantaged black boys and 23 per cent behind disadvantaged Asian girls in phonics.

Responding on behalf of the government, Gibb said those statistics “are the ones that have driven this government’s education policy since 2010”.

“Closing the attainment gap between those from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more advantaged peers is what has driven our obsession with ensuring children are taught to read effectively at the age of four or five, and ensuring six-year-olds can decode words using phonics.

“It’s what has driven our desire for children to develop a love of reading and to help develop a wider vocabulary. It’s what has driven our determination to adopt the practise of the best-performing countries of the world in the teaching of mathematics in primary schools.

“And it’s what has driven our determination to improve the cultural literacy of all children regardless of their background or gender, and ensuring they have the vocabulary which will not only help their reading, but which means they have the knowledge required for academic progress.”

Gibb quoted a book called the Learning Gap, in which authors Harold Stevenson and James Stigler warn that it is an error to assume that it is diversity in children’s social and cultural background that poses greatest problem in teaching, when a far greater problem is variability in children’s educational background.

“This is the essential philosophy behind the government’s drive to close the word gap, to close the attainment gap and to level up opportunity ensuring every child regardless of background or gender can fulfil their potential,” Gibb said.

He said that philosophy had driven the government’s curriculum reforms, GCSE reforms, and its determination to move system away from a “so-called competence-based curriculum” to a knowledge-rich curriclum.

And according to Gibb, these reforms “are beginning to show results”, despite recent government data which showed that the disadvantage gap actually widened over the past two years.

“Standards are rising and the attainment gap between advantaged and the disadvantage gap is beginning to close, by 13 per cent in primary and 9 per cent in secondary since 2011.”