Education Policy
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Into The Dragons’ Den

Lessons from taking part in the Teach First Innovation Awards. 

Dragon cartoon 3 heads

A few months ago, we began to explore the Teach First Innovation Awards. Teach First aims to encourage an entrepreneurial approach to innovations in order to address social inequality through improved education. ‘Innovation’ can be a dire thing in education, as successive waves of innovation have come and gone, leaving little to show for their passing except tired teachers and bemused students. But of course innovation, when it is well-researched and informed by a solid evidence base, is not only useful but necessary. Such innovation is what we aim to do: to ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’ who have gone before us. Innovation is not re-inventing the wheel in a different shade of pink; it’s adding suspension, or a pneumatic tyre, or bearings, so that the wheel performs better and better.

Teach First Innovation Award

The process of preparing for the awards has given us a great deal to reflect on as we consider how to ‘scale up’ Thinking Reading. In particular we have appreciated the encouragement and the positive, problem-solving ethos of the Teach First community. It is good to be around people who expect success and who are not daunted by problems. Problems are accepted as part of achieving anything worthwhile, but they are identified, faced, and not just overcome but turned to advantage. It’s been good to sense the support after two years of often feeling alone on the high seas!

One of the areas that has been helpful for us is being challenged on how to communicate key messages very briefly so that new audiences ‘get’ what we are about. The experience of ‘pitching’ to a panel brings this sharply into focus: when you are talking to six people with diverse backgrounds, messages have to be crystal clear, concise and get to the heart of the matter instantly. There seems no end to the process of refining the message, especially when you are trying to describe a complex intervention with remarkable results.

Perhaps the single most important lesson for us has been a reminder that we are not in this on our own – we are in it to support a growing movement. It’s a movement that’s happening around the world, seeking to use the best scientific evidence to improve reading instruction and transform millions of lives.

Here are some ways that you can support that movement:

  • Advocate for systematic, synthetic phonics in your primary school (or your child’s school).
  • Question the use of ineffective interventions that leave students with labels, but still unable to read independently.
  • Read some of the excellent blogs and websites on improving reading instruction, such as John Walker’s The Literacy Blog, Susan Godsland’s, Alison Clarke’s Spelfabet website, Heather F’s Esse Quam Videri, Greg Ashman’s Filling The Pail, and Kerry Hempenstall’s blogposts at
  • Become more familiar with the research on reading and what constitutes effective reading instruction. You can start with our professional reading pages which are intended for exactly this purpose.
  • Support organisations like IFERI and the Reading Reform Foundation.
  • Use social media and other channels to question and engage policymakers and politicians, requiring them to be knowledgeable about the research and listen to informed debate.
  • Train in teaching reading using effective practices. (We will be looking to recruit trainers for Thinking Reading for early next year: if you’re interested, let us know through Twitter or our website).
  • Be skeptical of approaches that claim to be ‘balanced literacy’ or based on neuroscience, whole language philosophies, neuro-lingusitic programming, right-brain/left-brain, higher- vs lower-order skills, learning styles, and other such myths that have blighted education for decades. Challenge them when they re-appear (as they inevitably will!).
  • And of course, read to your children, be excited about books and stories with your students, create routines with space for them to read on their own, and make sure that they have a wide choice of material.

One way that we’ve tried to sum up what we are about is our one-minute video for the Community Choice Award. (You can find links for all the finalists’ videos here – you can vote via the page.) We won’t be leaving the day jobs for a career in the film industry!

The Innovation Awards will be announced on September 3. We are pleased to have reached the finals and grateful for what we’ve learnt so far. While gaining an award would be wonderful, what we’re most pleased with is that we are getting better at communicating the message: that illiteracy is unnecessary and can be solved, quickly and effectively, with systematic, explicit, evidence-proven teaching. If being part of the awards helps us to broadcast that message to more people, it has been well worth the effort.

And please do watch our video and vote!

The story continues: Capturing the Magic

Visit our website.


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