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A Winning Way with Words

Literacy consultant Lesley Clarke, Class of 1987, worked as a teacher for 25 years before devising a school phonics programme which is now being used to help children across the UK learn how to read.

“I was lucky enough to get a bursary to attend LEH (although this is the first time I’ve shared that information – I didn’t want people to know when I was at school). From my early teens I knew I wanted to be a primary school teacher. I only needed two Es at A level to get onto a teacher training course and was keen to do other things in the Sixth Form. The school were OK with this until my O level results came out - and I had done unexpectedly well.

After half a term of doing a third A level (because the school told me I’d always regret it if I didn’t), I found myself having to stand up for what I wanted for the first time (I’d always been a really quiet and compliant pupil until then!) and went back to just the two A levels.

I was the only one to do A/O level needlework in the L6 and I’ve found those sewing skills so very useful throughout my adult life. I was also the only one to continue typing lessons throughout the U6, passing all three levels of typing exams, which meant I was able to do much higher paid work than other students in the holidays. I have been so grateful for my touch-typing skills ever since – they have been of so much more use to me than a third A level ever would have been.

After four years on a BEd course at Brighton Polytechnic, I started teaching at an infant school in West London in 1991 and became a literacy co-ordinator three years later. In 1998 I was seconded one day a week to work as a literacy consultant in the London Borough of Ealing, supporting schools to implement the National Literacy Strategy. A year later I became a full-time consultant. It was during this time that I first started training teachers on the teaching of phonics, providing in school support and creating classroom resources for others to use.

In 2001 I moved out of London and became the deputy head of an infant school in Buckinghamshire. I provided some of the centrally based phonics training in this authority and also wrote a series of resource books to support teachers using the Department for Education (DfE) phonics materials. I gave up my Deputy Headship after a few years to split my week between part time teaching and consultancy work.

For several years I was also the phonics lecturer on the PGCE course at Brunel University. These varied roles combined to give me a wonderful insight into what does and doesn’t work in developing children’s phonic knowledge and skills, as well as the support and resources practitioners, student teachers and parents are looking for. In 2007 I set up my own website to share these resources.

In 2011 I completed my very first government tender to get my phonics training and resources approved under the DfE matched phonics funding scheme. I have to admit I almost gave up when the tender required an environmental policy and a commitment to answering phone calls within a certain number of rings! However, I persevered against the odds and found myself accepted into the DfE catalogue along with the big publishing houses, so that was quite an achievement.

I finally left the classroom at the end of 2019 (over 28 years after starting my teaching career). In 2021 the DfE announced they were going to strongly encourage all primary schools to use a phonics programme that had been validated by them. The process was again very much aimed at the big publishing houses, as texts/reading books were required. After an initial feeling that I couldn’t possibly compete and meet all the requirements, my best friend offered to write and illustrate some poems for me.

I hadn’t written a poem until I was 50 (school never taught us how to do this –  we were just expected to know, so I have to confess my dad did all my poetry homework for me!) I knew exactly the type of texts that four-year-olds needed and was very restricted by the phonics that could be used at this stage, so I had to write the easiest poems myself. I unexpectedly caught the poetry writing bug and have written and self-published over 100! I’m thrilled that children across the country are learning to read with these and I get a real buzz from hearing how much they are enjoying them.

I collated my planning, resources, poems and links to other published reading materials into a complete systematic synthetic phonics programme called ‘Lesley Clarke's Letters and Sounds’ and it was validated by the Department for Education in 2022. Yet again I beat the odds to achieve this as an individual, alongside the likes of Oxford University Press and Collins (amongst others). The programme is being used by schools in 18 different local authorities in both the state and private sectors and growing.

The two key messages I’d give to those starting out in their careers are:

- Hold firm to what you want to do/achieve and don’t let school/others/expectations/norms or bureaucracy stand in your way.

- Be open to any opportunities that come your way. I had assumed I would always be a full-time primary school teacher, but saying yes to small, seemingly insignificant things over the years has led to me having a varied and unique career in education. Indeed, if anyone asks me what I’ll be doing in a couple of years, I have to say I don’t know – things will develop and change, but I will wait to see how.”

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