Ideas@TheCentre – The Centre for Independent Studies


Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table.  3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.

Why we need the Phonics Check

Jennifer Buckingham

22 September 2017

JB phonics reading children 2The ‘Simple View of Reading’ conceptualises reading as having two key components — word identification and language comprehension. Children need to know how to decipher the words on the page, and have a store of vocabulary, factual and conceptual knowledge to give the words meaning. A deficit in either one of these areas means that reading is difficult or impossible.

Pretty much all educators acknowledge that phonics is an essential element in learning to read and write. Phonics is both a body of knowledge and a skill: children need know which letters represent which sounds and vice versa — and they need to be able to use that knowledge to read and spell.

All children can and should know how to use phonics to decode words. Unfortunately there is good reason to believe many children are not acquiring this fundamental knowledge and skill, thus hampering their ability to become proficient readers.

It was for this reason that the advisory panel I chaired recommended a Phonics Check for Year 1 students — a simple, five minute, teacher-delivered assessment based on the Phonics Screening Check used in all primary schools in England since 2012. The Phonics Check would identify children who are struggling with decoding at this critical stage in learning to read, and provide schools and systems with immediate detailed data about strengths and weaknesses in phonics instruction that would allow them to respond accordingly.

Objections to the Phonics Check came in thick and fast when the advisory panel’s report was released earlier this week, but many were misinformed about the nature of the assessment and the rationale underpinning it.

The loudest protestations against it have been that teachers are already assessing phonics and that ‘another test’ is unnecessary. However the panel found that — while all state and territory government schools and all non-government schools are conducting literacy assessments to varying extents — none of the systemic assessments had a strong phonics component. The phonics assessment items were either too few or were poorly designed. In some cases items listed as ‘phonics’ were measuring a different skill: phonemic awareness. The best assessment was in the Northern Territory, which is making significant in-roads in phonics.

It is now up to the state and territory education ministers to carefully consider the recommendations of the panel, without being unduly influenced by the teachers unions and a few professional associations that seem to be very

worried about what a Phonics Check might reveal. If we can put politics aside and get phonics right in the early years, we may finally see a reduction in the number of children struggling with reading.

 Dr Jennifer Buckingham is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and Director of the Five From Five literacy campaign.

Free market basics need to be re-learnt

Robert Carling

22 September 2017 | Ideas@TheCentre

RC free market wall street bull 2The twentieth century taught us enough about the limits to government intervention that the Australian energy market debacle — a failure of intervention, not of markets — could not happen. But it did, and it is just the latest and most egregious example of a growing anti-free markets theme in government policy.

The federal government is prepared to slap controls on gas exports. It is trying to strong-arm AGL into keeping the Liddell power station operating against commercial criteria. In the sphere of banking, it has imposed new regulations (the Banking Executive Accountability Regime) limiting banks’ freedom in hiring and remuneration. These extraordinarily intrusive regulations — announced in the federal budget — would have received much more attention had it not been for the accompanying bank tax, which grabbed all the headlines. These are but a few examples of a broad trend back to the interventionism of the past. And this is coming from a government that claims to champion free enterprise and deregulation.

It does seem that the lessons of the twentieth century have been forgotten and that the defenders of free markets have to go all the way back to basics. The economic problem is scarcity of resources (factors of production such as labour and capital) relative to peoples’ wants, and free markets are the best system known to achieve an allocation of resources that comes closest to constrained maximisation of peoples’ well-being.

That is not to say markets are perfect. Market failure exists and it might justify government intervention. But there is also government failure, such as when governments intervene even in the absence of market failure, or when there is market failure but intervention makes the situation worse.

Governments are too eager to intervene. They needs to choose their interventions more judiciously and design them more carefully.

Towards a circuit-breaker on welfare reform

Sue Windybank

22 September 2017 | Ideas@TheCentre

SW welfare soup kitchen handout 2In a recent post for the Foundation for Economic Freedom, US ethics professor Richard Ebeling revisits the vital role that voluntary associations once played in the United States in providing assistance for those who needed a ‘helping hand’.

In Australia, such voluntary arrangements were also important — but they did not cover the entire population. As Steven Schwartz noted in the Autumn issue of Policy, even at their peak these organisations only covered about 30% of the population. The remaining 70% had to depend on charities or government if they needed help.

“At first government support was minimal,” he explains, “but over time public welfare expanded and crowded out many charities” — with the transition to public welfare occurring especially quickly here.

Decades of state welfare and political paternalism have since conditioned some people to believe they cannot take care of themselves without government support. So they jeopardise their own freedom by giving government increasing authority over their lives while reducing the freedom of others too.

Ebeling does not despair of change, however. He argues that the modern classical liberal agenda needs “to explain and to make appealing the possibilities and benefits of greater self-responsibility in a free society.”

In the new Spring 2017 issue of Policy, Roger Douglas and Robert MacCulloch take up this point about personal independence — what was once proudly known as self-reliance — in outlining a bold package of reforms that would change the system’s incentives.

They show how compulsory individual savings accounts can be established using tax revenues, so a publicly funded welfare system can be changed into a largely privately funded model that promotes individual choice and responsibility.

They use New Zealand as a case study before considering how their ‘savings not taxes’ reforms could be applied to Australia.

Importantly — pace Ebeling — they emphasise that their policies “aim to give low-income earners the opportunity, encouragement and incentive to make some real progress for themselves by themselves.”

In short, to help them regain independence.