Raymond Terrace, just north of Newcastle in New South Wales, is an unlikely place to find one of Australia’s leading advocates of rightwing education policy.
It is a town with a long history of social disadvantage, a high proportion of public housing tenants and an unemployment rate that fluctuates with the fortunes of the coalmines farther up the Hunter Valley, but it is also where Jennifer Buckingham has perhaps made her biggest impact.
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Buckingham, a senior research fellow in education policy at the conservative Centre for Independent Studies thinktank and a leading advocate for private and charter school education, chose Raymond Terrace public school when her two daughters entered primary school in 2008.
Like the rest of the town, it’s a school dealing with entrenched social disadvantage; 64% of its students are from the bottom socioeconomic quartile and a fifth are Indigenous, two key indicators of lower academic outcomes.
“The catchment we draw from includes a lot of kids coming from public housing, and students with itinerant backgrounds,” principal John picton says. “A lot of our students come into school without very much, if any, prior learning in their background. That’s a challenge for a school, particularly from a funding point of view.”
So Buckingham decided to get involved. In 2010, she began working with Kevin Wheldall and Robyn Beaman, two education researchers from Macquarie University who developed MultiLit, a phonics-based intervention education program for kids who are struggling to learn to read.
The researchers began working in the school, while Buckingham completed her phD on literacy and social disadvantage drawing her research data from the school.
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The results, picton says, were dramatic.
“I think in a lot of reading programs there is an assumption that students come into school with a language base,” he says. “But the research shows that kids from a low socio-economic background often come in with very limited vocabulary, less of an existing word, and that’s where MultiLit helped.”
Between 2008 and 2013 Raymond Terrace public saw its Naplan reading scores lift dramatically, from level-pegging with similar schools in the area to well ahead of the other primary schools in the town.
Those scores have dipped again somewhat in recent years, but picton puts that down to the funding for the intervention program drying up – his enthusiasm for Buckingham and phonics instruction remains undimmed.
“We’re very fortunate here that our paths crossed,” picton says.
He isn’t alone. Buckingham’s influence – and as a result, the influence of the CIS – in Australian education policy debates has steadily increased under the Coalition. phonics has been at the centre of that influence.
The debate surrounding the use of phonics in Australian classrooms has taken on a new, more urgent significance since the release last year of a government-commissioned report that recommended the introduction of a mandatory “check” on children’s phonics progress in their second year of schooling.
The report, published by an expert panel led by Buckingham, called for the “light touch” check to be a mirror of the model introduced in the UK in 2012.
The check, which takes between five and seven minutes and is administered by a teacher, tests students’ ability to sound out a mix of 40 real and made up words.
While the education minister, Simon Birmingham, publicly backed the plan in September last year, it was variously embraced and rejected by divided sections of the education community.
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In January the Victorian opposition leader, Matthew Guy, announced that if elected his government would make phonics instruction mandatory, with a check introduced in the first grade and Buckingham would be appointed to review Victoria’s curriculum.
Then, last week, the South Australian Labor government announced it would do the same after trialling the check in about 50 primary schools last year.
Announcing the decision the SA education minister, Susan Close, said the trial had shown the phonics check was “easy to carry out, children enjoy doing it and teachers find the results useful”.
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“The screening check is also an extra tool for teachers to use alongside their judgment and training to help children develop their reading skills,” she said.
On Twitter, Birmingham congratulated Close for making the phonics check “bipartisan policy”, a statement which raises an important question: why wasn’t phonics already a bipartisan policy, and what about it divides educators along ideological lines?