The talk below, by Irina Tyk, Head of Holland House School, was given at a Campaign for Real Education conference in 1995. It was then published in The Daily Telegraph and the ‘ideal outcomes’ were added later.

May I welcome you to a wonderful profession. You may be badly paid, your classroom may be overcrowded and your school may be underfunded, it may be too cold in winter and the roof may leak – but the essential nature of the profession remains unchanged – the intellectual development of the young lies in your hands; and upon that intellectual development rests man’s achievement and man’s happiness.

Let me start at the beginning of education in school. For as I hope to show, early principles set down an educational approach which is valid up to A-levels and beyond.

One of your first tasks will be to teach children to read. You will be familiar with many different reading strategies, most of which carry the stamp of approval of a leading expert. In an age when the shelves of every library and bookshop are filled with books by experts in this and experts in that, may I urge you to do away with the experts and consider the evidence for yourself. Consider the objective facts of the subject which you are about to teach. Here are the facts. These facts exist, for better or for worse, and they are just as indisputable as an historical fact.

There are 26 letters in the English language which separately, and in combination, make up 44 sounds. The 44 sounds are not arbitrary but they are governed by clearly identifiable rules. There are, of course, exceptions to the rules but the rules do cover most of the language.

Your task in the first few years at school is to teach your class 44 separate facts and to teach your class how to put these facts together to form whole words. Surely, it ought not to be impossible to teach a class of children, of average intelligence, 44 simple facts in two years, that is, about 7 facts a term! Can you imagine how reading standards in England would improve if after two years all school children had learned just 44 facts!

Of course, you must consider the best way to impart these 44 facts. This will be determined by the nature of the facts themselves. In this case the message is contained in the visual recognition of symbols and their conversion into sound bytes. This is one of the most exciting learning experiences – when children discover the link between what they see, what they hear and what they say.

Let me comment upon a key controversy  which you will have to face in your first year at school. Just as it is essential to know what you are teaching, it is equally important to realise what you are not teaching. When you teach children to read by teaching them the 44 sounds and the blending of these sounds to make whole words, you are teaching your pupils how to unlock a code. You are not teaching them comprehension, which is to say, you are not introducing them to William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. That may come later.

It is difficult for the young teacher to imagine how much pressure will be placed upon him not to teach the 44 sounds. In an age which demands instant gratification and immediate access to the “information highway”, we seem to have lost sight of the fact that the whole is the sum of its parts; in order to read for meaning, in the most complete sense of “meaning”, a vast network of skills will be required. Since one cannot acquire everything simultaneously, some things will have to be presented before other things. I am sorry to state the obvious but you will not be a teacher for long before you realise how easy it is to overlook the notion that before you can teach one thing, you must first teach something else. When it comes to reading for meaning, there is a proper sequence which should be followed.

Children should learn:

  1. The distinctive orthography of the language.
  2. The sounds which the squiggles denote.
  3. How to blend these sounds together to make whole words.
  4. The rules which govern the relationships between words, which I am sorry to say, goes by the old-fashioned name of grammar.
  5. The recognition and evaluation of content.
  6. Sensitivity to style, tone and different nuances of expression. 

When you can do these six things you can read for meaning. It should be obvious, therefore, that you cannot read for meaning initially. Those who suggest that children should be taught to read for meaning before they learn to read without meaning are just as absurd as a swimming instructor who expects his pupils to travel along the water without learning a single stroke.

In these first years at school you will encounter many of the issues upon which the experts have pronounced. You will immediately be faced with the dilemma of whether or not children should be taught in whole classes. Now, the issue of whole class teaching concerns the purpose of teaching itself. If you believe in “learning by telling” then it is obvious that you can tell most to most people when they are all facing you and listening to you. After all, by far the most effective way for me to talk to you is to face you and speak to you all at once. It would be an absurd waste of time to arrange you in groups and hurry from group to group. Exactly the same principle applies to five year olds. Please remember that young children are not a different species to old children, known as adults!

Now it is claimed that by placing children in groups in the classroom they can discover knowledge for themselves at their own pace. I disagree. Reading, writing and arithmetic  – those subjects which are the cornerstone of primary education – are not discoverable. Those who know must teach those who don’t know.

Furthermore, children should not be regarded as social misfits who require group therapy to develop healthy social relationships.

If ever a classroom dynamic were designed to minimise the role of the teacher, then it is surely this modern practice of small groups of children facing one another, often with their backs to the teacher. Please have the courage to look your children in the eye.

I realise that breaking whole classes into groups stems from our conviction that man is a social animal who must learn to live and to work with his fellow man. We seem to have lost the notion that most of the great advances in human knowledge come from individuals and not from committees. The practice of arranging children in committees is nothing less than the reduction of the individual to the needs of the collective. I urge you, teachers, to rekindle your faith in the power of the individual brain; one man’s knowledge is not another man’s knowledge; one child’s ability to read is not another child’s ability to read. Whole class teaching ought not to be about teaching in the old-fashioned Prussian way whereby every child merely repeated, robotically, what the teacher said. Whole class teaching, at its best, is about the teacher setting forth, as inspiringly as possible, a body of knowledge which each child may strive for on his own.

Let me make a few comments about our current anti-intellectual climate which decrees that no theory can be altogether correct. In an age when it is fashionable to criticise the young for their refusal to make judgments on the basis of right and wrong, it seems to me that they have learned this moral and intellectual avoidance very well from their elders. Why should children believe in right and wrong when all that they see around them is a kind of moral and emotional pragmatism which says that everything is equally valid – all cultures, all moral codes, all theories and all practices? How can children exercise moral certainty in an atmosphere of intellectual uncertainty? Let those educators who seek to abandon fixed rules for reading in favour of learning to read by guesswork or by reference to pictures beware for, unwittingly, they are teaching their charges that man makes his way in the world by guesswork or by following the expert who alone is able to tell when you have guessed incorrectly.

There are profound moral implications which emanate from even so early an educational experience as learning to read. Equally, whether or not one learns arithmetical tables will send out a strong moral signal to the young pupil. Should history be taught as an objective record of great events and great men or should it be taught by directing the student to develop his skills of empathy? The way in which you teach history carries enormous moral implications. I would like to suggest that when the moral guardians of society alert us to the decline in moral standards, the solution lies not in preaching a particular moral code to the young, but rather in placing school children in an environment where they may perceive that a fixed objective body of knowledge actually exists, and that they need not be excluded from this knowledge.

I hear a lot nowadays about empowering young children. I may tell you that I do believe in empowering young children. The way to do this is to empower their minds. It is not a question of granting children new political rights. It is also not a question of removing children from responsibility for their own behaviour. If you want to empower children teach them to read, to write, to speak, to know and to think. No individual need feel a lack of empowerment if he can do these things. It is the job of teachers to empower their pupils in just this way. If there is but a single message which I would like to send out to the young teacher, it is that he should recognise the intellectual foundation of an effective and confident human being. Fortunately, this kind of intellectual development may proceed regardless of race, creed or class.

I may point out, as I believe is often forgotten, that those educators who recommend teaching methods which involve guesswork and a disregard for rules and knowledge are promoting a type of education which favours children of a particular background or particular level of ability. If you expect children to learn to read without reference to rules and logic, then you consign them to the reading level of their own culture. The more you minimise the role of the teacher in the classroom, the more you maximise the influence of the child’s background.

“Learning by doing” is elitist; “learning by telling” is democratic.

You will have heard today a lot about the 44 sounds which comprise the English language. May I pay homage to Dr Joyce Morris who has provided the clearest exposition of the 44 sounds in her own work, the Morris-Montessori Word List based on “Phonics 44”. Her work is not only essential so that all the nation’s children may learn to read, but it is also a work of enormous intellectual and moral significance which stretches far beyond the ambit of reading itself.

How you teach children to read provides an early learning model for the subsequent acquiring of knowledge in a multiplicity of disciplines. If you want to empower children from the earliest possible age, then teach them to read independently and correctly as soon as possible.

I am well aware that there are those who will deride what I have said so far as mere hypothesis or high-sounding sentiment. To the disbelievers let me say that there are schools and courses where children are educated along such lines. Over the last four summers, I, myself, have run courses which were attended by children across the whole ability and attainment range. In just three weeks we were able to show an average improvement in Reading Age of about 12 months. It would be impossible in the time available to me this morning to give you details of how child after child was empowered by spending this relatively short time with us.

Let those who are sceptical come and visit my school. I shall gladly introduce you to whole classes of children, who have learned to read by the age of six and who can perform all the basic arithmetical functions accurately, without a calculator. And the children are happy, too.

There are other schools where high expectations are normal for children, teachers and the Head. In these schools my words this morning can be substantiated.

At such schools the children are empowered because they are gaining real maturity –  which is to say not the maturity of mere calendar age but the maturity that comes with knowledge and effectiveness. The teachers are empowered because they experience the supreme joy of seeing their knowledge and understanding bridge the generation gap. And the Head is empowered because all the participants in the life of the school –  parents, governors, staff and children –  are striving to the same purposeful end.

Before I leave the subject of reading I would like to refer to something which I was told recently by a member of the so-called “Society of Experts”! In agreeing with me that many children would benefit from being taught to read by learning the sounds of the letters, she then added that, of course, whereas this method might produce a more logical kind of child, it would, on the other hand, diminish the role of imagination and creativity. There exists a serious view that logic and imagination are at loggerheads; that if you wish to encourage the free expression of the human spirit and if you wish to have warm open-hearted sensitive children, then you should steer well clear of cold inflexible reason. The notion that in order to exercise one’s imagination, one ought to suspend reason and structure is surely wrong. Even if the creative process, at its highest point, follows some kind of magical intuition, I can hardly believe that it is proper to begin the development of a child’s imagination by fostering the primacy of impulse, whim and caprice. The fact that one feels like doing something does not justify the action. A doodle is not a picture, random words strung together do not make a sentence; the stream of consciousness of a five-year old is not the stepping stone to James Joyce’s Ulysses. And so I would like to say a few words about creative writing, and writing in general, in the classroom.

I believe that young children should be encouraged to write boldly and to juggle ideas freely and fearlessly. When children write stories, they ought not to be encouraged to indulge in lengthy, albeit accurate, descriptions of the minutiae of their daily lives. Children should write short essays, which are big on ideas and small on the humdrum.

It is for this reason that I detest the practice of requiring children to keep diaries. Diaries tend to be small on ideas and big on the humdrum. There is hardly a child at school today who has not been required by his teacher, at some time or other, to keep a diary of his summer holiday or keep a record of what he did last weekend. It seems to me that the vogue of diaries as a valid teaching exercise embodies many of the wrong messages

  1. Until one has acquired a personal intellectual history, diaries tend to be restricted to a mere record of unimportant events.
  2. Diaries are usually episodic; the only link is the fact that it happened to you.
  3. Asking a child to keep a diary and show it to his teacher is an infringement of a child’s right to privacy.
  4. There is a kind of creeping psychological sanitisation about requiring young children to keep diaries. It’s as if Big Brother is watching you to see that you are developing in the right way and that your home life is everything that it ought to be. The teacher’s brief is being exceeded.

In contrast to the Adrian Mole style of literature, which elevates the ordinary and the ridiculous, may I urge you, young teacher, to place at the forefront of literature the hero, the exceptional man, the good man, the man who is worthy of our admiration; and hence, the man worth writing about.

I cannot stress too strongly the importance of heroes for the young, and, I daresay, for the not-so-young too! Unfortunately, most young people today have acquired a premature cynicism which forbids the existence of the extraordinary. My children at school constantly tell me that they have no heroes. I suggest that they invent one. Let children invent heroes and write about them.

Ideas contain a moral dimension and children should be taught to consider their ideas from a moral standpoint. The whole process of selecting and rejecting which ideas might be appropriate for a particular piece of writing is as much a matter of moral choice as it is of aesthetic choice. When you oblige a child to keep a diary, you are encouraging him to believe in the primacy of the ordinary; when he writes about the good and the great, be they fictional or non-fictional, he is encouraged to believe in the primacy of the good and the great.

Having defined your job as teacher, what resources do you need? In a period of dwindling economic resources, it is, I think, proper to be frugal. It goes without saying that in times of plenty, when there are no constraints whatsoever in spending on education, the sky is the limit in terms of books, equipment and the creature comforts. But since we do not live in paradise, what do we actually need in order to teach children effectively? We need an empty space. We need a well-paid teacher, who has mastered the subject which he is required to teach. We need children, who have been sent to school to learn. In other words, we need the two parties to the contract, the teacher and the pupil, and we need a space where the contract can be executed. All the rest is what you do in times of plenty. Let us not confuse what is desirable with what is necessary. It is necessary to teach the 44 sounds in order to teach all children to read; at best, it may be desirable to have pretty reading book displays in the classroom; it is necessary to teach children the arithmetical tables in order that they acquire numerical skills; it may be desirable to have various games and teaching kits with which they can physically manipulate sets of numbers; it is necessary to have a designated space for children to exercise their bodies in P.E. lessons; however, it is only desirable to have trampolenes and digital stopwatches. I do wish that all who are involved in education would differentiate between the necessary and the desirable.

This morning’s programme promised you some unfamiliar advice on teaching practices and educational principles. May I now summarise my unfamiliar advice:

  1. Teach children.
  2. In particular, teach children that knowledge is knowable.
  3. Eliminate guesswork in the pursuit of knowledge.
  4. Teach children to judge and to be judged.
  5. Teach them that information is not knowledge; hence, they will have to learn that operating the new computer technology is not a substitute for their own knowledge.
  6. Teach your children how to unlock the code of the real world.
  7. Do not be afraid that your pupil will grasp more than you.
  8. Teach your pupils the moral implications of what they do, what they think and what they say.
  9. Let children believe in the heroic so that they may not be overwhelmed. Let their minds not shrink in the face of the world.
  10. Remember that there is no group knowledge 

If you have not found anything unfamiliar in what I have had to say, may I congratulate you on being so well-prepared to be a teacher!

The ideal outcome after 3 terms at school  (children aged 5)

1.         Children should be able to recognise and blend at least the most common phonic sounds, namely, all the consonants plus the five short vowels. More advanced classes can certainly go further to include long vowels and the silent E. Children should be able to blend all the sounds which they have learned in order to make whole words. In addition, children should learn from the start how to hold a pencil, how to write on lined paper and how to form letters correctly.

2.         Children should be experienced in using the five senses to gain knowledge of simple objects. They should have performed many exercises to sort and distinguish objects with reference to the five senses.

3.         Children should have some sense of bigger/smaller, heavier/lighter, colder/hotter, etc.

4.         Children should be accustomed to the normal classroom discipline which is appropriate in whole-class teaching. Children should be accustomed to facing the teacher, copying down work from the blackboard/whiteboard and they should know the proper procedure for asking questions. Above all, children should now be familiar with their classroom as a place for learning.

5.         Children should be able to dress and undress themselves, (eg for PE lessons), tie their own shoe laces, toilet themselves, look after their books and pencils and be responsible for their space.

6.         Children should learn single and two-digit numbers, and they should recognise larger and smaller numbers within this range. There should be some understanding of a number as a category: 5 oranges is a different numerical category to 50 oranges.

7.         Children should be able to add and subtract on paper single and two-digit numbers without borrowing or carrying-over. Furthermore, children should be able to add and subtract single digit numbers and the number 10 as well “in their heads”. They should be able to add 4 and 3 without counting out the numbers individually from 1 to 7; that is to say, adding one category to another category produces a third category.

8.         Children should be accustomed to simple physical activities – which may take the form of PE, games, dancing, etc – to develop healthy bodies. They should also be able to follow normal instructions which accompany such activities. Some form of dance is strongly recommended as an aid to developing rhythm, coordination and a sense of physical space.

9.         Ideally, children should have received professional instruction in voice production so that they learn correct breathing, posture and how to project their voices clearly, audibly and without shouting.

10.       The practice of encouraging five-year olds to spend hour after hour drawing freehand untutored pictures is bad. Children should be taught to draw, starting with hand control, to drawing elementary shapes and to shading within a fixed perimeter. In the same way, banging musical instruments is equally useless.

The ideal outcome after 6 terms at school (children aged 7)

1.         Children should be familiar with all the phonic sounds and they should be able to blend them. They should be conversant with the common phonic exceptions. In short, they should be able to read fluently and independently.

2.         They should now have learned the names of the letters of the alphabet so that they may learn to spell. Children should be familiar with spelling patterns and with some easy spelling rules. They should also be able to spell some of the common exceptions to the rules of spelling.

3.         Children should be able to take dictation, at a standard which parallels their reading level, at a reasonable speed and with a high degree of accuracy.

4.         Children should have practised writing short exercises in creative writing. In general, the titles should be fiction. Such stories should be written in class at least once a week under some kind of time control. The teacher should not “dictate” their story for them; teachers should not give them a story line. Even at this early stage, children should be challenged to write descriptions using nouns and verbs rather than strings of adjectives and adverbs.

5.         Children should be encouraged to learn short poems off by heart.

6.         Children should now be well into learning their arithmetical tables. They should already have learned the following tables: 2x, 3x, 5x, 10x and 11x.  Mental arithmetic sessions should be a daily feature of the class timetable by now.

7.         Children should be able to add and subtract two and three-digit numbers; they should be able to perform these operations with carrying and borrowing. They should be able to multiply to the extent that they have learned their multiplication tables. Children should now be able to set out their arithmetic in clear columns.

8.         Children should have been taught to conduct the most elementary investigations - to the limits of their perceptions and imagination. These would be the first steps to regarding the world through the eyes of the scientist, historian and geographer.

9.         Children should now have been exposed to serious art lessons on a weekly basis. Art should be treated as a serious academic subject containing its own rules.

10.        Music lessons, especially singing, should be a regular feature of the weekly timetable.

The ideal outcome at the end of primary school (children aged 11)

1.         Children should be able to tackle, independently and within a strict time limit, a range of comprehension exercises of a difficulty which is commensurate with advanced reading skills.

2.         Children should be able to write imaginative essays  which are consistent within a structure of time, space and place. Children should not mix their tenses up. Descriptive writing should not be an excuse to string together lists of adjectives. Children should have some sense of the ideal, whatever the category! Children should be used to considering their imaginative essays from a moral viewpoint.

4.         By now, children should know all their arithmetical tables up to 1 2x. These tables should be known out of sequence, in any order, and at speed. It is of utmost importance that this knowledge of arithmetical tables extends to division as well.

5.         Children should be able to perform the four functions with whole numbers, fractions and decimals – WITHOUT CALCULATORS! It is imperative that children be able to perform long multiplication and long division with the appropriate working-out. Children should be familiar with questions concerning area and perimeter, time and distance, money, units of measure and the reading of simple graphs.

6.         Children should have acquired some knowledge of the physical world which extends beyond the boundaries of their own perception and which is normally hidden from them. They should have studied the lives of great men. There should be some awareness of the globe and where England is in relation to other countries.

7.         Children should be accustomed to completing objective pencil and paper tests in individual subjects and at frequent intervals. Children should understand that lack of knowledge and a failure to learn what the teacher has taught may well result in a poor test result. A poor test result should not be viewed by teacher, parent or pupil as a cry for psychiatric intervention! Children and teachers should be accustomed to dealing with success and failure!

8.         Children and teachers alike should now be familiar with the concept that input is not evidence of output!

9.         Needless to say, all the good practices in music, art, drama and sport should continue.

10.       Children should by now have spent six years immersed in the intellectual environment of the classroom – a place where rational thought and courteous dissidence are sovereign. /Campaign for Real Education, August 2004


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