School Reform Minister, Nick Gibb, talks about phonics and gets it wrong again

Janet Downs's picture
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‘…a substantial body of evidence shows that systematic synthetic phonics is the most effective way to teach all children to read.’

School Reform Minister, Nick Gibb, speech to Reading Reform Foundation, 28 March 2015

But it doesn’t. Regular readers will know (see sidebar) that Gibb’s ‘substantial body of evidence’ supports ANY method of teaching phonics as long as it’s systematic.

Even the quotation Gibb cites from the Australian National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy doesn’t endorse just synthetic phonics:

‘The evidence is clear […] that direct systematic instruction in phonics during the early years of schooling is an essential foundation for teaching children to read. […]’

No mention in the evidence of synthetic phonics – the method which Gibb endorses so enthusiastically.

The substantial body of evidence also says phonics is but one component, albeit a very important one, in teaching reading. This was confirmed in a report commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE) in May 2014:

‘One of the key messages to emerge from the evaluation so far is that many schools appear to believe that a phonics approach to teaching reading should be used alongside other methods.'

But Gibb ignores ‘other methods’. There is only one way of teaching reading – synthetic phonics.

Gibb appears to think it is only this Government’s relentless focus on phonics which is improving reading. But systematic phonics was embedded in primary schools before Gibb started promoting his systematic/synthetic/one-or-the-other-or-both phonics programme. When he announced his matched-funding scheme for phonics materials, take-up was slow. Gibb had to resort to naming-and-shaming local authorities where schools hadn’t rushed to buy the materials. This was because schools were already teaching phonics. The money would have been better spent in promoting comprehension. It was comprehension which needed more work, the Eurydice report into the teaching of reading in Europe found - phonics was already well-established.

The phonics screening test assesses decoding. Decoding isn’t comprehension. Teachers say fluent readers, those who read for understanding, sometimes struggle with the pseudo-words in the test because they’re looking for meaning not nonsense.

Failing to understanding the difference between ‘systematic’ and ‘synthetic’; failing to understand the two terms are not interchangeable; and failing to understand what evidence about reading methods actually says - these result in nonsense.

 

Let’s hope future school ministers can comprehend as well as decode.
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Comments

John Connor's picture
Tue, 31/03/2015 - 14:33

It might also be pointed out that the materials that Gibb was so keen to foist onto schools were produced by Ruth Miskin, who just happened to be the person who advised Gibb about SSP in the first place. Whatever happened to conflict of interest?


John Mountford's picture
Tue, 31/03/2015 - 15:39

John, it went out the door a long time ago and shows no sign of re-emerging any time soon - remember Cookoo Hall??

http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2015/03/cuckoo-hall-and-there-were...

But don't worry about any of this if you are a shareholder in education publishing these days. Just keep raking in the profits, as others have done and continue to do so with the blessing of Gibb and other ministers/politicians all courtesy of the public purse. Maybe those sections of the electorate desperately dependent on help from the state to make ends meet in the climate of forced austerity will help us all out at the ballot box and make sure clowns no longer walk the corridors of power in Westminster. Lets hope!

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 01/04/2015 - 08:40

John - you're right. Phonics certainly makes a sound - it's Kerching as the tills bang open.




Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 01/04/2015 - 08:52

Conflict of interest appears alive and well in academy trusts. It's not just the well-publicised ones such as Durand Academy Trust (led by Gove favourite Greg Martin) or those trusts exposed by the Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/jan/12/taxpayer-funded-academy...

There appear to be others lurking in the wings. For example, Aspirations Academies Trust, which featured in yesterday's Guardian for paying a trustee and principal £400,000 between them. http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/mar/31/academies-school-govern...

The Chair of the trust is Dr Russel Quaglia who is also director of Aspirations Unlimited International which entered into a deal with Pearson in 2008 to become the sole publisher of Quaglia's My Voice Surveys used in many US schools. http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Pearson+Announces+Partnership+With+Aspirat...

There’s nothing wrong with schools using such surveys but if the school is an academy linked to a firm which produces surveys sold by a global education company then there might be conflict of interest.

Parent2's picture
Wed, 01/04/2015 - 09:07

Such as this one?

http://www.gemsedsolutions.com/efficiency-index

For the UK it appears to recommend larger class sizes and lower teacher pay.

The funding agreement for its new primary academy in Twickenham has just been agreed prior to the election cut-off, although there are planning issues yet to be resolved.

Michele -Lowe's picture
Tue, 31/03/2015 - 16:15

Reading for meaning. Now there's a concept which has gone missing from the minds of target setters. I'm glad you raise that key point, Janet. I am frequently brought up short when working with my struggling readers to realise how much of what they are successfully decoding is passing straight over their heads. No wonder they lose interest easily. Added to that, it's a battle to squeeze in reading in what looks to me like an overloaded curriculum. Working in Wales, which is meant to have a separate and potentially independent approach doesn't confer any protection from this kind of pedagogy. Much of what is dogma in Whitehall filters through to us here. Improving literacy and even, dare I say it, fostering reading for pleasure is obviously complex and time consuming. Far easier, therefore, to teach and then measure a technical skill like decoding. Kids drilled till they can do it. Progress made. Job done. And a generation who won't want to pick up a book again.


John Walker's picture
Wed, 01/04/2015 - 08:54

'Decoding isn't comprehension.' Of course it isn't and I know not one single advocate of systematic, synthetic phonics that thinks this is so. All phonics advocates I've ever met believe strongly that comprehension plays a vital part in reading for meaning.
However, first and foremost, if a child cannot decode/lift the words off the page in the first place, they stand no chance whatsoever in comprehending anything on the page in front of them. That is a simple fact.
Secondly, all experts of child development agree that, by the age of five years, almost all children have vocabularies of between 6,000 and 10,000 (or more) words and that they know around three-quarters of the grammar of the language. This is attributable to the fact that all children learn their own language(s) naturally. We are primed to learn spoken language without having to be taught formally. That is not the case for written language. Written language is a cultural invention and needs to be taught. It cannot be taught unless the teachers understand how the writing system works and exactly how it relates to the sounds of the language. Given that children already know so many words in their own language, it seems only logical to teach them, starting from simple and building towards more complex sound-spelling representations, to read and write using systematic, synthetic phonics.
The problem with our writing system is that it is the most complex of the alphabetic codes. We have in British English forty-four sounds and there are approximately 175 common ways of spelling those sounds. In contrast to more 'transparent' codes such as Italian or Spanish, it takes much longer - about three years - to teach children to be able to read anything - and that only if it is taught very day and if reading and writing are taught simultaneously. Whereas, In, say Spain, one would expect almost all children to be able to read, though not necessarily to understand, anything after one year.
If that then enables children to make the transition from learning to read towards reading to learn, it would seem to me to be a worthwhile investment. And, before you accuse me of prescribing a rigid diet of phonics only, I'm not! Alongside the teaching of phonics, children should be presented with rich, literary sustenance in the form of narrative and expository texts to further enhance their understanding of the language and to grow their lexical repertoires.
A final word on nonsense words. Teaching nonsense words for the sake of it is plainly just daft! Using nonsense words as an assessment tool for finding out what children can and can't do is quite another thing. Using nonsense words as an assessment device can tell the teacher much about whether children possess the code knowledge to enable them to convert spellings into sounds and then blend those sounds into words. It can also give a very good idea of what children's skills of segmenting and blending are like, how automatic they are. And, in the end, any word not within the compass of a child's vocabulary is a nonsense word. Nonsense words are very often simply words we haven't come across before.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 01/04/2015 - 09:39

John - my argument is not about the teaching of phonics. I said phonics is 'a very important' component in learning to read. My argument is with a Schools Minister who seems unable to differentiate between 'systematic' and 'synthetic' imposing a particular method of learning to read ie synthetic phonics 'first, fast and foremost'.

According to the Eurydice report in teaching of reading in Europe, phonics was already embedded. What was needed was work on comprehension. That was where Gibb's matched funding scheme should have gone not on giving Government approval to a small number of phonics programmes.

A DfE commissioned report found teachers weren't just focusing on phonics but employing other methods. I asked the NFER which did the research what these were. They included guided reading, reading for meaning, use of ‘big wow’ words, story book reading and listening, vocabulary and grammar work, use of Big Write materials and a range of other schemes or strategies including Reading Partners, Freshstart, Bug Club, Better Reading Partners, the ELS Programme, Success for All, Reading Recovery, and Catch Up Literacy. In addition, a small number of schools reported they had developed their own literacy programmes.

Teachers would, I hope, assess pupils' reading all the time. The phonics screening test wouldn't tell them anything they should already know. Although it's promoted as a 'diagnostic tool' it's being used as a performance measure.

Brian's picture
Wed, 01/04/2015 - 12:48

John ... many years ago I taught in a middle school. The first school had a Headteacher who didn't belive in phonics at all and as a result it wasn't taught in the school. The children came to us as enthusiastic and competent readers. The 'remedial' group in our school had very few children. It was a system with selection at 12 ... we had the highest Grammar School pass rate in the LA.

I'm not arguing against phonics, but I'm not agreeing that it's always got to be the core of good reading. Ability to pass a phonics test, yes. Enthusiastic readers, no.

John Walker's picture
Wed, 01/04/2015 - 10:13

Thanks for your reply to my comment.
I think that there are differences in the way that phonics should be taught in different countries. For languages such as Italian, Spanish and (I'm told!) Finnish, the transparency of the languages makes sound-spelling correspondences obvious: for the most part, sounds are represented by one letter spellings. That makes them very easy to teach and the transition from learning to read to reading to learn is accomplished relatively quickly. In my experience, teachers in many European countries also have a very much deeper knowledge of the structural (formal) aspects of their languages than do many English teachers, who often have a very poor understanding of the formal structures of the language.
For historical reasons, as I'm sure you are aware, English is a different kettle of fish: it is complex and requires a sophisticated understanding by teachers if they are to teach it properly. My contention is that teachers do not have this kind of understanding because they are not trained properly.
My gripe is that of the £23.5 million spent on the government's match-funding initiative, only a paltry £1.5 million was spent on training. In allowing schools to spend money on resources instead of on the hugely more important issue of training, Gibb made a serious error. Because he is an eloquent advocate and champion of good quality phonics teaching, even my friends in the phonics community don't like me saying this but, if schools are not teaching synthetic phonics well, then his government must share part of the blame for not investing in a countrywide training programme. Perhaps the first thing to have done would have been to have invested money in independent research programmes to determine which phonics programmes are most effective, an initiative they have consistently refused to do.
By the way, I am writing a blog posting on the potential confusion about decoding and comprehension, which I hope you will allow me to post to your forum later.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 01/04/2015 - 12:26

John - I agree other languages are more phonetically regular than English. I've been learning Spanish and there's no confusion about how words are pronounced. I could confidently decode a Spanish text although I might have no idea what it meant.

You're right about training in the teaching of reading. But that should go beyond training in synthetic phonics. The evidence cited by Gibb says it is the systematic teaching of phonics (any method) which is important. It doesn't advocate synthetic phonics only.

The problem occurs when 'systematic' and 'synthetic' are used as if they mean the same thing. A satirical take on this would be to highlight that both words begin with the same two letters, 'sy', and end with the same three, 'tic', and someone hasn't decoded the words properly but just guessed what they were based on limited clues.

There have been plenty of research programmes about phonics. I've trawled through many of them - see sidebar - and discussed them in my submission to the Education Select Committee about how the DfE used evidence about phonics.

One piece of research produced last year by Dr Marlynne Grant was rather dodgy. (Dr Grant is a member of the Reading Reform Foundation where Gibb made his speech on 28 March.) It only looked at a small number of pupils although it was claimed to be a 'vindication' of synthetic phonics.

The Times (16 June 2014, behind paywall) said the significance of Dr Grant's research was limited by the small scale of the study. Ben Goldacre put it more succinctly in a tweet:

@bengoldacre “Teachers. If a non-randomised study of 30 kids in one class counts as significant evidence, your sector is broken.”

Quite.

We welcome contributions on the forum especially from new voices.

Barry Wise's picture
Wed, 01/04/2015 - 16:21

Janet

Have you read Long-term effects of synthetic versus analytic phonics
teaching on the reading and spelling ability of 10 year
old boys and girls
by Johnston, McGeown & Watson (2011)?

I think that paper shows some pretty conclusive evidence of the superiority of synthetic over analytic phonics in the medium/longer term as well as clearing up a lot of confusion arising from other recent studies.

One of the reasons there isn't much more of this evidence around is because the benefits of synthetic phonics become so obvious to researchers it creates an ethical issue around using a control group being denied synthetic phonics. Indeed, in the 2004 Clackmannanshire study, the LA stepped in to insist all children were provided with synthetic phonics instruction.

What always puzzles me about the debates held on this blog is the implication that phonics instruction lasts for ages, crowding out everything else. Done properly, systematic synthetic phonics is delivered over 16 to 22 weeks, starting towards the end of the Reception year and finishing before the Phonics Test in Year 1. Then, that's it. Done and dusted.

Barry Wise's picture
Wed, 01/04/2015 - 16:22

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 02/04/2015 - 10:55

Barry - I'm not arguing about analytic v synthetic. I'm saying (and have said so in the past) that the evidence Gibb cites in support of synthetic phonics does NOT do so. It supports the systematic teaching of ANY teaching of phonics. It didn't matter what method was used as long as it was taught in a systematic way. See sidebar and my comments to the Education Select Committee http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-sele....

My comments to the Ed Select Committee included this on Clackmannanshire study:

'The Clackmannanshire study re synthetic phonics. Ellis, S, and Moss, G, 'Ethics, education policy and research: the phonics question reconsidered' in British Educational Research Journal 2013 concluded: "The weakness of the [Clackmannanshire] research design, including the way the statistical data were analyzed and reported, suggest it would be unwise to draw any clear conclusions for pedagogy or policy from this single study."'

Professor Dombey (UKLA) told the Ed Select Committee:

'the Clackmannanshire study of Johnson and Watson. This study, in which SSP was used with the whole age cohort of one small Scottish Local Authority, yielded large gains in word recognition, and more modest gains in comprehension tests (Johnston and Watson, 2005). What is not foregrounded in their account of the study is that numerous other initiatives involving the provision of books, improving relations with parents and the introduction of thinking into the curriculum accompanied the adoption of SSP. But in Scotland’s National Tests of Reading, taken at the end of primary school, this experimental cohort did not score significantly better than its predecessors (Ellis and Moss, 2014). Devastatingly, after the conclusion of the study, the Scottish HMI observed that performance in reading in Clackmannanshire was “below the average for comparator authorities” (HMIE, 2006, p. 4). To date Clackmannanshire is scoring in the bottom third of Scottish LAs in terms of reading. Unsurprisingly, Scotland has not recommended this approach to other authorities.'

Dick Schutz's picture
Thu, 02/04/2015 - 20:49

Differences of opinion about "Phonics", no matter what or how many adjectives are in front of the term will always be tis-taint arguments--for two reasons, at least. First, "phonics" is a teaching method and the method will be interpreted and applied differently by teachers and by reading instructional schemes/programmes. Second, some children will already have learned how to handle the English Alphabetic Code (described very well by John Walker, above). Other children will learn how to do this, irrespective of what teaching method is used. These "no problem" children confound any empirical comparative investigation of teaching methods.

The "evidence" to support "systematic synthetic phonics" resides in the substance and structure of the Alphabetic Code--the link between spoken and written communication--not in "educational research literature." The literature is such that one can find a citation to support any contention about reading instruction that anyone cares to state.

The best empirical evidence currently available resides in the UK parliamentary initiative in reading instruction in the primary years/grades. "Mistakes have been made" but the results and the progress have been remarkable--particularly when compared with what has transpired in the US and in other English-speaking countries.
My reading of Nick Gibb's speech is that it's "fair and accurate." Sure, I could nit-pick what he said and didn't say, but in the Education Minister category, I'd score the presentation "Above-proficient"--as the faulty jargon in US testing practice would put it.

"More data analysis is needed"--but that always holds in scientific inquiry.

Patrick Hadley's picture
Thu, 02/04/2015 - 22:24

Dick, can you support your claim that "the results and the progress have been remarkable"? Progress since which year, and measured by which indicators?

If you are basing this on the Key Stage Two test results, Reading scores have not improved as much as Maths scores. There is also the question of how reliable a test that has been such an important target is in recording genuine ability. I am not suggesting that there is cheating, but intensive coaching for a test can make a big difference in scores, without any underlying improvement in attainment.

If one looks at the huge rise in the numbers of pupils achieving Levels 4 and 5 compared with twenty years ago, and contrasts this with the opinions of experienced teachers in Key Stage Three, who have not noticed any real improvement in the reading, writing and maths skills of new entrants during the same period.

There is a lot of talk about "grade inflation" being responsible for most or even all of the increase in the numbers of students gaining good GCSE results. Does this not also apply in Key Stage Two?

Dick Schutz's picture
Thu, 02/04/2015 - 23:12

Sorry, I was speaking only to KS 1 and the year-to-year progress on the screening from the Pilot to the present + what has been illuminated re "special needs," "English Language Learners" and "poverty."

I go along fully with what you have to say about KS 2 and beyond. Seems to me the gains there are largely illusions, because the instruction hasn't changed much and the tests at best are weak indicators of the instruction that is actually being delivered.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 03/04/2015 - 08:47

Dick - the phonics screening test is supposed to be a diagnostic tool not for measuring performance. Of course, it IS used for measuring performance - Nick Gibb does it.

The DfE commissioned a report last year into the KS1 test. It found teachers were using mixed methods - phonics and supplementary materials (see my reply to John Walker above 1 April 9.39 for details).

As I have said repeatedly, I am NOT arguing that phonics isn't valuable. What I am saying is the evidence Nick Gibb claims to support synthetic phonics first, fast and foremost does NOT do say. It advocates the systematic teaching of ANY phonics methods. He also seems unable to distinguish between 'systematic' and 'synthetic' but uses these words as if they were synonyms.

He's also introduced the mandatory phonics test, supposedly for screening but being used to measure performance (as I said above). If teachers feel testing decoding is necessary, then it should be done at a time appropriate for individual children as part of formative assessment and not when a schools minister says it should be done.

Andy V's picture
Fri, 03/04/2015 - 17:26

NG almost certainly does not get passed first base out of career politician mode into emerging educationalist and many erroneous soundbites and worse still intervention and strategies can squarely be placed at his door. That said, even he cannot be successfully accused of using the phonics screening programme (it is not and never has been a 'test') as a national performance measure which is what is effectively being asserted here. Yes, his language may suggest that the screening is a performance test but and it is huge but, schools not are held to account for their phonics performance either by Ofsted (inspections and data dashboard) or in the DfE school performance tables. Used diagnostically the screening can be a powerful and positive tool.

It is then regrettable that the screening is persistently characterised as being a "test" and even more regrettable when it is portrayed as "being used to measure performance". The only apparent evidence for the latter is that Gibb himself uses inappropriate and inaccurate descriptors in his rhetoric. Just as one swallow does not a summer make neither does one politicians loose language turn a diagnostic tool into a performance measuring test.


For me LSN is at its very best when its contributors use their acutely honed forensic skills to target political nonsenses and damage done to the educational journey and experience of the nations learners and the schools that try so earnestly to support those learners. This is not helped when any of us - for whatever reason - become sidetracked and slip into reinforcing urban myths and legends.

Dick Schutz's picture
Fri, 03/04/2015 - 18:23

What the Framework for the Screening Check says:

"The purpose of the phonics screening check will be to confirm that all children have
learned phonic decoding to an age-appropriate standard.
Children who have not reached this level should receive extra support from their school to ensure they can improve their decoding skills, and will then have the opportunity to retake the phonics screening check."

I'd quibble about calling it a phonics screening check rather than an Alphabetic Code screening check and I'd drop the "age-appropriate standard" bit. But other than that it seems perfectly sensible to me.

What Nick Gibb said:
"Given the value of the phonics screening check as a diagnostic tool to identify whether pupils need further support, this week we said that we will run a pilot to extend the retake to year 3. This will be a voluntary pilot working with 300 schools, including some junior schools. Year 3 pupils will retake the check if they have not achieved the expected standard at the end of year 2 in summer 2015 (having initially taken the check at the end of year 1 in 2014). I hope this pilot will help us to understand why pupils still do not meet the standard, and the kind of support and interventions schools offer pupils who don’t meet the standard by the end of year 2."

What Nick Gibb didn't say:
1. The check is a general reading diagnostic tool
2. That teachers had to do anything in particular
3. Anything about the government supporting any particular brand of phonic--he uses the generic term "phonics"--unmodified

I would have mandated all Yr 3 and onward Kids who previously flunked the check to retake it, but the Govt is proceeding very cautiously with a "voluntary pilot." I'm OK with that; it's a small step, but it's in the right direction.

Gibb was preaching to the choir at the RRF Conference. I thought the speech was pretty tepid when I read it the first time, and thought the same when I re-read it again just now. What impresses me is UK Govt consistency in trying to support schools and teachers rather than bashing them per common practice in the US.

Gibb promises to continue that commitment:
"In short, we will continue to champion the importance of what could not be a more worthwhile objective: fluent reading".

Seems to me that's about as good as it gets. What am I missing?

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 04/04/2015 - 09:02

Andy - I agree Gibb says it's a diagnostic tool and not a performance measure (at least in theory). Here's part of a written answer he gave:

'School level performance in the phonics screening check is not published in the performance tables. Schools are not held to account for their performance in this diagnostic check, although they do have to inform parents of their child’s result in the way they think most suitable. The results are available on www.raiseonline.org for schools to use and for local authorities and Ofsted as part of their inspections process.'

http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers...

But, in practice the check IS being used to attack schools and local authorities (see Nick Gibb's speech to the Reading Reform Foundation in which he compares local authorities on pupils' performance in the check). Results can be used by Ofsted when judging schools. Results appear in RAISEonline which is used by Ofsted and others to compare schools.

https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/nick-gibb-the-importance-of-phonics

It cost £4.3m to administer the check last year. It probably didn't tell teachers anything they didn't already know about individual children's decoding skills. And despite it being called a 'diagnostic check', it IS used for political purposes and by Ofsted which, if inspecting schools properly, could check pupils' reading by teachers' own assessment and by listening to pupils read instead of holding them to account by looking at RAISEonline.

Andy V's picture
Sat, 04/04/2015 - 09:38

Janet - I am with you regarding the errancy spouted by NG but all the government/DfE publications and guidance refer to phonics screening checks, which does isolate NG somewhat in his utterances.

I am unmoved regarding the check being used per se as a school performance measure. Other than NG's errant language there is no evidence that DfE or Ofsted are using the check to measure performance or attack schools using the screening outcomes: nothing in the data dashboard, nothing in the school performance reporting. Yes, it appears in RoL but, and this is a key point, there is no national average comparative data for a school to use (and ergo none for LA, DfE or Ofsted to draw upon). The power and usefulness of the check arises from the small number of pupils involved which allows a school to internally analysis the outcomes to:

1. Hone phonics practice/delivery pre the check
2. Identify pupils who need intervention and support post the check (e.g. for those who did not fair well and those that did and in this way targeted interventions can be put in place)

It follows then that I do not accept that the errant rantings of one person (NG) can or should be used to judge what really happens in schools, Ofsted and DfE.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 04/04/2015 - 09:12

Dick - it doesn't follow that in criticising Gibb's use of evidence or his promotion of one particular method of teaching phonics I am not in favour of turning children into fluent readers.

But, to repeat:

1 The evidence used by Gibb to support synthetic phonics did not do so. It supported the systematic teaching of ANY method of phonics.
2 The teaching of phonics (any method) was already embedded in England (and in Europe) before Gibb started his synthetic phonics programme.
3 What was needed was more work on comprehension (essential if pupils are to become fluent readers). The money spent on matched-funding of synthetic phonics materials (which profited certain producers of such material who advised Gibb in the first place) could have been better spent on allowing schools to buy whatever literacy materials or training they though necessary.
4 There is nothing wrong with teachers using whatever diagnostic tools they wish to do so at an appropriate time. However, a diagnostic check, test, whatever, shouldn't be mandated by Government to take place at a particular time. Neither should the results be used for political purposes as Gibb has done.

Brian's picture
Sat, 04/04/2015 - 09:22

I think what you are missing is the end of Gibbs statement which should have been '
“In short, we will continue to champion the importance of what could not be a more worthwhile objective: fluent reading ... and we have decided that fluent reading equates to a government prescribed phonics method. We will therefore insist on pupils persisting with the phonics test until ... well we're not clear about until.'

Currently I'm working with an infant school which one of the highest reading outcomes in the LA, indeed in the country, and has had been judged as Outstanding in consecutive Ofsted inspections. The children read fluently and with enthusiasm. The outcome in the phonics check has always been significantly below national levels. Anxious about their next Ofsted they have diverted resources into more phonic instruction. I have no doubt their phonic check score will rise significantly. Impact on reading outcomes and children's enthusiasm and enjoyment (I must stop mentioning those, they don't count) ... nil.

Like Janet I'm not against synthetic phonics, what I am against is Gibb insisting that it is 'the way'. Judging the success of synthetic phonics in improving children's reading by measuring the improvements in the Y1 phonics check outcomes is dubious to say the least.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 04/04/2015 - 10:24

Andy - local authority results of the 2014 Key Stage One phonics screening check are in the public domain. They can be downloaded here:

Schools can benchmark their performance against these, the Standards and Testing Agency said.

I've nothing against diagnostic checks if teachers regard them as useful. But I feel these should be used when appropriate. They could be a useful addition to formative assessment. However, the way they're being used at the moment - for political purposes and by Ofsted in judging schools (over-reliant on data, Sir Mike Tomlinson has said) - is not helpful.

And Nick Gibb's utterances, unfortunately, get publicity eg Daily Telegraph, The Guardian




Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 04/04/2015 - 12:04

Andy - Ofsted is using the test to make judgements about schools:

'In 2014, fewer than half of the Year 1 pupils reached the required standard in the national phonics screening.'

Astmoor Primary School

'By the end of Year 1, the proportion reaching the standard expected for their age in the national screening for phonics is below average'

Our Lady and St Paul's RC School

'Results for the Year 1 national screening check for phonics (letters and the sounds they make) are slightly above the national average.'

Pontefract Halfpenny Lane Junior and Infant Nursery School

'Their attainment in phonics in the Year 1 checks is above average'

Hook Infant School

'In 2014, pupils achieved an above average standard in the phonics check at the end of Year 1 and Year 2.'

St Michael's CofE Academy

'... in 2014, results for the Year 1 screening check were in line with those seen nationally.'

St Michael's and All Angels CofE Primary School

'An above average proportion of Year 1 pupils attained the expected standard in the phonics check in 2013. However, phonics results dipped below average in 2014.'

Ernesford Grange Primary School

'In 2014, Year 1 pupils attained well above average in the Year 1 phonics screening check.'

Fernhill Primary School

'Results in the Year 1 phonics screening check (an assessment of pupils’ knowledge of the relationships between letters and sounds) are well above the national average.'

Eastbury Farm Primary School

'In recent years, pupils’ success in the Year 1 phonics check has fallen. This is no longer the case; younger pupils are gaining the skills to become competent readers.'

St Joseph's Catholic School

I didn't have to look far. These comments are from the first two pages of Ofsted primary inspections published this week. Note - all but one are full inspections.

Andy V's picture
Sat, 04/04/2015 - 14:54

Janet - I see where you coming from but still cannot agree your conclusions. With regard to inspections let us go back the latest handbook (Jan 15) which states in relation to pupil attainment:

"the outcomes of the most recent phonic screening check and any follow-up screening undertaken by the school" para 195, p. 66

It is my understanding that this is the only entry relating to phonics screening and is rooted in the school being inspected and how it uses the outcomes to drive improvement.

With regard to all your quotes, yes, the reports refer to phonics outcomes within the Achievement of Pupils section. However, I believe it is not prudent to atomise a full report to the extent that simply because phonics is referred to means that it is a key part of the process:

1. The comments you identify contribute a less than minimal part of a single section of the report

2. Phonics only features in two reports in the summary of key findings in the reports, and even them those were in a grade 1 and grade 3 school. Of the other 8 reports - several lead by HMIs - phonics does not feature as a reason for the grading or as an area for improvement. The two schools that were lead by additional inspectors.

In the same way that SMW issued guidance on not grading lessons and reiterating that Ofsted has no preferred or recommended pedagogy, there is perhaps a need explicit guidance to his HMI and AI team regarding phonics screening.

Andy V's picture
Sat, 04/04/2015 - 10:45

Janet

"Schools can benchmark their performance against these, the Standards and Testing Agency said" The operative word here is "can" and therefore they do not have to and it is not mandatory.

"However, the way they’re being used at the moment – for political purposes and by Ofsted in judging schools ..." I agree that NG is wholly errant in regard using the screening politically but it is wholly wrong to assert that Ofsted are using the screening to judge schools. Mike Tomlinson is right to highlight the over reliance on data but screening checks do not form an active part of the data to which he refers.

From all the inspection report alerts I have received since the introduction of the screening check I have yet to read one where the phonics screening was used against a school. Rather I have seen occasional (infrequent) comments relating to how pupils used their phonics skills while reading to inspectors.

Brian's picture
Sat, 04/04/2015 - 11:29

Sorry Janet, my post looks as if I'm saying you're missing something from Gibb's statement. It was supposed to be a reply to Dick's contribution 6.23pm, 3/4/15.


Dick Schutz's picture
Sat, 04/04/2015 - 16:00

Brian and Janet:

We're talking past one another here a bit.
1. NG IS a politician. It doesn't seem fair or reasonable to impute a communication that he didn't say to create an arguable spin.

2. This whole bit about "synthetic phonics" didn't start with the current govt. The UK national curriculum has evolved over several govts. The Rose Review brought in the term because the "Searchlight model wasn't working." What I see is continuity rather a "control freaky" Minister. (Further proof that the "comprehension" of a text depends on the reader rather than on the "inherent meaning" of the text.

3. Although the screening check is titled a Phonics Screening Check, the kids would have been happier with it had it been titled "Alien Names and Real Word Exercise"--and the alternate title is just as accurate. Technically, the instrument is a psychometrically sound measure, fit for purpose of identifying individuals who need further instruction in handling the Alphabetic Code--the link between written and spoken communication. Do you have any problem with that? If not. They got the title wrong, but don't judge an instrument by the title.

4. If you you have "no problem with phonics," "it was always there," and so on, then why aren't all kids passing the Check? 32 out of 40 is actually a pretty low cut score.
That is, any capable reading can breeze through all of the 40 words, and the pseudo-words wouldn't phase them. What isn't fair and reasonable, in my view, is to lay the blame on the teachers. Yes, they're "on the ground," but the "blame" for the current status (if we want to play the blame game for a minute) lies squarely on the profs, pubs (as in publishers) and crats (as in bureau) who polluted the instructional water with metaphorical "Searchlights" and "real books," ignorant of the essence of written communication--the Alphabetic Code. The pollution is still there, and the Screening Check is the best bet for dealing with it and moving on--just like what happens everywhere except EdLand.

5. I agree fully with Janet that the Match Funding should have allowed the schools full freedom to spend the money any way they deemed proper. The DfE "Catalogue" and "review process" was altogether unnecessary and laughable. But where were schools and teachers at the time? That they didn't speak up, now leaves them vulnerable to claims that they "didn't use the money wisely." Again, the PPCrats call the shots and then blame schools and teachers for the "failure." Not fair, not reasonable.

6. This thing about "Comprehension." Q: Why is "comprehension" only a big deal in written communication and not in spoken communication? A: Because in speaking, when there is any ambiguity or unclear understanding, it's readily resolved by "What do you mean? Are you saying? I'm not sure I get what you mean by ..." In reading, the reified abstraction "comprehension" is used as a blanket term to cover up whatever
that is missing from the reader's lexical repertoire that would be necessary to understand the text. The term is the Holy Grail of reading instruction--again the handiwork of the PPCrats, incidentally.

Don't get me wrong. PPCrats are good people (per the bell-shaped random curve) and we'd all be in worse trouble without them. It just seems to me that schools and teachers have a friend rather than an enemy in the Screening Check. If it's not viewed as such, the "beating" is going to continue--and likely get worse. That's not in anyone's best interest--except the unaccountable PPCrats.

Brian's picture
Sat, 04/04/2015 - 17:12

Dick, I think you and I can agree on pretty much all of your points. I would argue the case for the phonics check up to a point and that is that every school I work with, about thirty, tells me that it tells them nothing they don't know already about a child's reading or ability to use phonics appropriately. They do say, however, that the 'check' is yet another high stakes test, whatever it's intention is, and is definitely being used by Ofsted in the same way as they use end of key stage tests.

Of course a capable reader is likely to 'breeze through' the tests, but not all children are capable readers at that point. There are a number of reasons for that and I can't agree that more emphasis on synthetic phonics is always the answer.

Brian's picture
Sat, 04/04/2015 - 19:14

Ever one to be fair I thought I ought to actually read Gibb's speech. I particularly enjoyed the arrogance of somebody who, while visiting a primary school, encountered an 11 year old girl who was struggling with reading. Like a flash our Super Hero diagnosed ther problem, by the simple expediency of showing her the word 'even' then covering up the first 'e' and asking her what the remaining letters said. She couldn't do it, leading our Hero to diagnose immediately what the problem was, something which had eluded her teachers for years, and prescribe the remedy.

I look forward to the launching of what must be known as the Gibb 'Even' Reading Diagnostic Test.

Also interested to see that Gibb claims that the promotion of systematic synthetic phonic instruction is based on clear evidence and then goes on to quote a paragraph from the Australian National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy which doesn't mention synthetic phonics at all. It says systematic phonic instruction ... Gibb has inserted the word synthetic.

Brian's picture
Sat, 04/04/2015 - 19:56

Trying to be a bit more positive. I've read a few of Gibb's speeches and much is based on a very limited use of evidence. However I do get a feeling that he is genuine in his desire to secure improvements for all children. I think his approach is simplistic to say the least, but I do get a feeling of a genuine passion in what he says. Or am I getting soft in my old age?


Dick Schutz's picture
Sat, 04/04/2015 - 20:03

The fact that the Screening Check doesn't tell teachers anything they don't already know is good news. That is NOT its purpose. As the framework for the check clearly states. and as NG reiterates: the purpose of the Check is to identify children who need further instruction in handling the Alphabetic Code. The Check does this very well and since the info jibes with what teachers already know is a plus for the Check.

The fact that a sizeable proportion of children still are unable to pass the screen, even with a low cut score, after 2 years of instruction is bad news. The fact that a number of schools have all or nearly all of their Yr 1 kids passing the screen points to the instruction the kids receive, call it what you will, as the determinant.

The fact that "not much (in the aggregate) is happening in Yr 2 to finish the job is more bad news.

As for the Check being a "high stakes test" lends a whole nother meaning to that term. The Check has NO consequences for either teachers or children and the results aren't released to anyone other than the child's parents (and OFSTED). OFSTED would be inspecting with or without the Screening Check results, so the availability of the results to them doesn't make it "high stakes."

I understand and sympathize with teachers who take their job seriously and try to do it conscientiously, and the Check is "high stakes" for any teacher who believes it is. But the Check is doing the job, it's intended to do. That the teacher "already know" reflects poorly on the teachers, not on the Check. That poor reflection isn't necessary, but teachers are "asking for it" when they term the Check high stakes and advocate throwing it out.

Dick Schutz's picture
Sat, 04/04/2015 - 20:40

Re Brian's comment on NG. Not that it matters a whit, but I agree. I give him a pass both on "evidence" and "phonics." The ed research lit is multi-miles wide and micro-inches deep. There are exceptions, but one has to look hard to find them. The UK is "making evidence" in reading instruction as it goes along. I don't see Gibb spinning this evidence for partisan political purposes.

As for "phonics" it's an inherently sloppy/slippery term, but you and everyone else (just about) has "no problem with it." The term can't and wont be "cleaned up;" the term is a nuisance, but not an obstacle.

Re the "Gibb 'Even' test. I take the anecdote as proof of how easy it is to identify children who need further instruction in how to handle the Alphabetic Code. An allegedly "incompetent politician" can do it with one word. The "hard part" is what instruction to provide the little girl. Gibb didn't stick around for that, but he had other things to do. Effective instruction for such kids is a "really big problem" that gets swept under the rug.

Brian's picture
Sat, 04/04/2015 - 22:00

If the checking of what pupils need can be done by a politician with a single word then why do we need the national, expensive phonics check to achieve the same purpose? As you keep saying, Dick, it is purely diagnostic. Now, it seems, that diagnosis can be done simply by asking a child to read 'ven.'

I can't follow your thinking I'm afraid when you say that when teachers already know what the child needs that reflects poorly on the teachers. In what way?

As for the diagnostic check not being high stakes because only parents and Ofsted see the outcomes. Firstly the audience isn't 'just the parents and Ofsted' . .. school Governors and the Local Authority spring to mind ... and secondly any data which is going to be used by Ofsted to inform its decision is, without doubt, high stakes. After all any teacher who looks at RaiseOnline and sees the five pages devoted to phonic 'check' comparisons with national outcomes is unlikely to conclude that this isn't high stakes testing and they are being a bit silly thinking it is.

Dick Schutz's picture
Sat, 04/04/2015 - 23:19

If the checking of what pupils need can be done by a politician with a single word then why do we need the national, expensive phonics check to achieve the same purpose?

Ooops. Let me try to be clearer.

Re your paragraph 1. My point about the "Even test," is that the "Check" as it stands is no "big deal." It could have been done in other ways and teachers "already know However. the Check as it stands is a psychometrically sound measure for identifying children who need further instruction in handling the Alphabetic Code.

A one-item test would not hold up psychometrically. I was being a bit facetious.

I would NOT consider the Check "diagnostic"--all it does is distinguish "good to go" from "not yet good to go." Actually, the DfE's decision to use a cut score as the basis for reporting the results diminished the diagnostic info, and the information on item results that has been buried in reports but not reported disregards further diagnostic information. Certainly, the Check doesn't provide any useful information on the instruction that "no-go "pupils need." The Check performs a very useful function in separating the "no-goes" from the "good to goes." The PPCrats believe that teachers have been supplied everything they need to finish the job with the "no-goes." I've said,
(words to the effect) "That's hanging both teachers and kids out to dry. Instruction can indeed 'fix the glitch', but it's much tougher to do than the PPCrats realize, and the PPCrats, not teachers, are largely responsible for the "glitch."

Re Paragraph 2. It's very simple. When a teacher or school says, "We already knew," parents and teachers are going to say, "Then why in heaven's name (or something like that) haven't you taught the kids?" I can't think of any response to the question that doesn't reflect poorly on the teacher and school. Can anybody here think of a good response?

Re Paragraph 3. Well, the dissonance here is that you and teachers are focusing on the response to the information reported to the limited audience receiving the results rather than to the Check and it protocols. However, the information reported is "nothing new." If the school reported to the same audience what they "already knew," (that is, take the Check out of it) the recipients would have exactly the same reaction.
The "stakes" are self-created by schools and teachers; they aren't imposed by the Check or the Govt.

That's my 2cents, but I could well be "off."

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 05/04/2015 - 07:21

Dick - you ask why didn't teachers speak out against the phonics test. They did:

National Association of Head Teachers September 2012

Three Teachers' Unions reject test

Teachers argue the brightest pupils fail November 2012

More than one way of teaching children to read (contains criticism of the check) October 2012


Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 05/04/2015 - 07:42

Dick - I've no objection to teachers using a diagnostic check if they think it's useful to separate the those 'good to go' from those 'not yet good to go'. But this check would surely be most effective if used at an appropriate time for each individual child. There's no need to spend more than £4m a year on mandating a check which all children take in the same time frame. The only people that benefit (apart from politicians making points, or Ofsted using yet more data to judge schools) are the producers of tests.

You are wrong about who creates the high stakes. It is politicians like Gibb who use the results to praise favoured schools and slate local authorities. Teachers know they're high stakes that's why there are questions about whether teachers cheated (which is widespread in the US thanks to high-stakes tests).

You'll need to explain - I've decoded PPCrat but do not comprehend. Is it a pseudo word?

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 05/04/2015 - 07:56

Brian - you're right that Gibb is enthusiastic - zealous even. But you've shown how his enthusiasm, which he no doubt sincerely believes is based on sound evidence, is actually misguided. If he cannot see the difference between 'systematic' and 'synthetic'; if he hasn't realised the evidence he used in his speech to justify the sole teaching of synthetic phonics did NOT contain the word 'synthetic', then his comprehension is seriously flawed.


Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 05/04/2015 - 07:59

Brian - the 'even' anecdote is laughable. Gibb takes one incident, just one, to 'prove' the struggling reader hadn't been taught properly to read (in his view). Leave aside the argument that showing words on a flashcard out of context might not be the best way to help children learn to read, or testing their proficiency, when Gibb covered up 'e' and asked the girl to read the 'word', he was actually asking a silly question. That's because 'ven' isn't a recognised word. She may have come across Venn diagrams, but 'ven' doesn't exist.

And on such flimsy evidence, teachers are told how they must teach children to read - use only the method approved by a Schools Minister and do not use any other. Ofsted says:

'The guidance to schools makes clear that phonics alone should be taught initially and that teaching other strategies alongside phonics is not recommended.'

Anything else is 'weak practice' which could result in schools being downgraded. So woe betide the majority of teachers who used other methods according to the DfE commission report (see main article for link).


Andy V's picture
Sun, 05/04/2015 - 09:25

Janet - a point of clarification if I may:

3/4/15 @ 8.47 am you state, "As I have said repeatedly, I am NOT arguing that phonics isn’t valuable."

5/4/15 @ 7.59 am you state, " Ofsted says:

‘The guidance to schools makes clear that phonics alone should be taught initially and that teaching other strategies alongside phonics is not recommended.’
Anything else is ‘weak practice’ which could result in schools being downgraded. So woe betide the majority of teachers who used other methods according to the DfE commission report (see main article for link)."

These two statements do not sit well together. Indeed, I would say there are in direct conflict with each other. So for the sake of clarity please confirm whether you are against phonics per se or against a particular style?

I would also urge that the caveat "initially" is not thrown out with the anti phonics dialogue. That is to say, after the short sharp initial period schools are entirely free to use other strategies.

With regard to phonics screening out turns leading to Ofsted grade 3 or 4 or stopping a school attaining grade 1 our dialogue on this thread has already contextualised that proposition. For the one school you cited that had phonics as part of the key summary as to why it was graded 3 this was by no means the only or principle reason and could also evidence the issue of inconsistency amongst additional inspectors, which is entirely separate from phonics.

Brian's picture
Sun, 05/04/2015 - 08:21

'Re Paragraph 2. It’s very simple. When a teacher or school says, “We already knew,” parents and teachers are going to say, “Then why in heaven’s name (or something like that) haven’t you taught the kids?” I can’t think of any response to the question that doesn’t reflect poorly on the teacher and school.'

Sorry Dick but that response is ridiculous. It implies that you think that with 'proper' teaching all children can progress at the same rate and all can reach the same level. To say it reflects poorly on a teacher who says 'I already know what this child is capable of and what s/he isn't' is, to be honest a bizarre comment. I hope I never come across an Ofsted report which says 'Teaching in this school is poor because teachers have a good understanding of pupils' attainment and progress and sometimes dare to say that a pupils hasn't learned something yet.'

Point 3. As far as I know schools were reporting to parents and governors re. children's progress in reading including phonics. This was informative and important it wasn't 'high stakes' for the school or the teacher ... the phonics test is, see Janet's comments.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 05/04/2015 - 10:24

Andy - you're confusing my personal opinion with a statement by Ofsted. My personal opinion is that phonics is important. If I were a teacher of reading (which I'm not and never have been), I'm sure I would teach phonics alongside other methods (as did the majority of teachers surveyed for the DfE commissioned report).

But I would not be so arrogant as to impose my teaching methods on any other teacher.

I then quoted Ofsted. This is Ofsted's view NOT mine. It's clear Ofsted has been primed via the Programmes of Study (which aren't supposed to apply to academies) to police the sole use of phonics. This implies teachers would be downgraded if found to be using other methods which, remember, the DfE report said they were.

Andy V's picture
Sun, 05/04/2015 - 11:01

As you are aware not all phonics strategies are the same - The Literacy Trust name four types - so I remain a tad confused by the overall scenario regarding the requirement for a specific prescribed type:

http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/resources/practical_resources_info/1035_...

With regard to Ofsted the following may also prove useful:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/getting-them-reading-early

The report you quote is based the findings in Stoke on Trent schools and also states:

"Schools and academies in Stoke-on-Trent should:

ensure that phonics knowledge is taught as the main strategy for teaching early
reading - ‘the route to decode words’
begin to teach phonics in Nursery classes, where schools have them
improve the skill levels and competence of teachers and support staff to teach
phonics, early reading and reading with older pupils"

Interestingly between the Ofsted Stoke on Trent report and Ofsted Getting them reading early training documents there is no reference to downgrading or hold back back schools because of phonics.

The statement you cite about not running alternative strategies in parallel with phonics thus seems to be based on the common sense approach of avoiding over complicating and overloading pupils, and is in no way tantamount to being used as a limiting judgement by Ofsted.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 06/04/2015 - 07:29

Andy - Ofsted has said it doesn't mandate particular teaching methods. At the same time it says it looks for the teaching of phonics, the earlier the better (in Nursery, for goodness sake, when will our children be allowed to play? Or is this something that must be pushed aside by formal teaching as early as possible?).

I think you're being a little disingenuous to say Ofsted's judgement on phonics teaching in a school wouldn't result in downgrading. The Stoke report cites what Ofsted considers to be 'weak practice'. It's hardly likely Ofsted would then say the school where the 'weak practice' was discovered would get 'Outstanding' or even 'Good' for its teaching.

Just for the record, I would be equally concerned if a Schools Minister mandated another method of teaching reading (Whole Books, Look-and-Say, even the Initial Teaching Alphabet) and then told Ofsted to police it.

John Mountford's picture
Sun, 05/04/2015 - 15:18

I thought reading for meaning was comprehension! Isn't comprehension reading for meaning? If so, I am confused by:

"‘Decoding isn’t comprehension.’ Of course it isn’t and I know not one single advocate of systematic, synthetic phonics that thinks this is so. All phonics advocates I’ve ever met believe strongly that comprehension plays a vital part in reading for meaning."

Is it just a belief "that comprehension plays a vital part in reading for meaning."?

John Mountford's picture
Sun, 05/04/2015 - 15:37

Fascinating stuff! I've learned important things about phonics and human nature in following this thread.

First, about phonics, I've learned that there is widespread agreement, (I suggest well beyond these columns) that the screening process tells teachers little they don't already know. One of the key differences here seems to centre around what various interest groups conclude from this. Some, clearly, believe it points to deficiencies in the teaching of reading while others question the validity of the exercise in the first place.

Apart from questioning why such an obscene amount of money is spent annually, if all we do is confirm what’s already known, I'm more interested in the messages sent to children and parents about reading development. Of course it's up to teachers to ensure the outcome of the ‘task’ is suitably contextualised for each individual but I can't help wondering, at the end of the day, whether some children end up learning more about their failure to perform in an academic endeavour at a very young age than the seeming importance to them of cracking the phonic code. I also wonder how parents receive this news.

As you point out, Brian, is it appropriate to “expect” all children to deliver to a set standard at the same time? Anyone experienced the impact on attainment/development for the summer born kids? In my view it definitely isn’t right to have a blanket view of child development. But, that’s probably my child-centred bias showing again! Others will conclude differently, believing that the function of education in our time is to raise standards in certain narrow competencies according to some, apparently pre-set, developmental norm applicable to all.

Second, regarding human nature, I've learned how it is possible for us to pay little more than lip-service to important overarching factors and get tied up in specifics/statistics. In this case, I think too little attention has been paid to what might be in the child's best interests. If I am critical of my professional colleagues, it is because they seem to have lost sight of the collective impact and importance of their role relating to the learner in the highly charged environment created by short-sighted political gaming of education. Would that they had found the collective strength to resist the ever-rising tide of high-stakes/accountability testing foisted on us by the dreaded GERM.

For what’s it’s worth, I think the money and time invested in the phonics screening for all is not justified. Not all children need to take part in the process and the idea that those who need to should take it at the same point in time is frankly unintelligent. Who made the decision to ignore the fact that children develop at different times and in different ways? My grandson was one of the fortunate ones who found learning to read easy. He would have laughed at the nonsense words. He would have realised, after decoding them, they made no sense and questioned why they needed to be there at all. (Not very compliant, like his granddad, obviously)

The fact that individuals/companies have been able to profit handsomely as favoured ‘insiders’, by dint of political patronage, is utterly unjustified and in my humble opinion unethical/corrupt.

While education continues to be driven by draconian accountability procedures (over frequent testing, data-driven inspection, performance related pay and the like), understandably, teachers look to pre-empt any threat posed by the judgements of others and may find their professionalism challenged to breaking point. I wish that they were better supported to actually collectively refuse to implement those reforms they know to be inappropriate. The politically driven nonsense, passing for education policy today and the shocking waste of time and money in implementing short-term “solutions”, has to end.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 06/04/2015 - 07:35

John - you might be interested in this Mumsnet thread about the phonics test. Many of the mums talk about their children 'failing', a mother of a pre-schooler was concerned about her child being labelled at 'failure' at 5, others said their competent reader child was puzzled by the pseudo words, some said their school had openly told them the tests were a waste of time; some mums weren't bothered.



Dick Schutz's picture
Sun, 05/04/2015 - 15:41

Comment re Janet--
But this check would surely be most effective if used at an appropriate time for each individual child
Well, simple exercises LIKE the Check are used day in and day out by Reception and Yr 1 teachers. That's why the results of the Check are "nothing new" to them. But you are missing the purpose of the Check. The Check is administered to all children after two years of schooling. This gives schools and teachers a reasonable time period to teach all (+/) children how to handle the Alphabetic Code. A goodly number of schools are accomplishing this instructional job now, and an increasing number of schools have done so each year.

The purpose of the Check, though, is not to "praise teachers and schools" who have done so. The purpose is to identify children who need further instruction in Yr 2. Some children are getting that instruction in Yr 2. Most aren't. The reason doesn't reside in the kids. It resides in the instruction the kids are getting.

There’s no need to spend more than £4m a year on mandating a check which all children take in the same time frame.
4m GBP is a super-bargain! The US is spending multiBiillion $ to do "the same thing, only worse."

You’ll need to explain – I’ve decoded PPCrat but do not comprehend. Is it a pseudo word?
Well, that's instructive. "PPCrat" is a coined word that compounds the words "professors, publishers, and bureaucrats"-- the chief unaccountables for what goe on in schooling instruction but who have escaped accountability for historical reasons.

I defined PPCrat in an earlier comment, but it went by very fast.

In a larger sense. This incident is proof that "Understanding" a word has nothing to do with a "comprehension" entity. It has everything to do with the background the reader brings to the text. That is, PPcrat wouldn't have been understood had we been speaking But you would have said something like "what's that" In reading, on the other hand, when one comes across a word you don't understand, you either have to "look it up" or "ask somebody." At times, the context of the text will give you clues that are "good enough, but not always.

That's all kids, or anyone else, need to know and can know about "reading comprehension." Occam's Razor takes care of the rest of the reified abstraction.

Re, "teachers speaking out." Then and now, the arguments fail to acknowledge the purpose of the Check: to identify children who have not been taught how to handle the Alphabetic Code after two years of instruction. Granted, this purpose was not well explained by the Govt, but nevertheless, the earlier arguments have been superseded by the cumulative results of the Screening Check. The longer teachers cling to the untenable arguments, the sillier they are going to look. (So say I, but time will tell.)

Comment re Brian--
you think that with ‘proper’ teaching all children can progress at the same rate and all can reach the same level
Not quite. One Alphabetic Code fits all, and all children, with very few (say 1% +/-) exceptions can be taught how to handle the Code (in other words, "how to read"). All organisms, from one cell to humans, learn in the same way, but we're concerned here only with humans, and primarily with wee ones. If a wee one enters Reception able to participate in everyday conversation, they are "good enough" to be taught how to read. The UK Screening Check is a "good enough" way to confirm that the learning/teaching has been accomplished. The Screening Check is also a "good enough" indicator of the status of reading instruction at any administrative level of schooling--from the classroom, to school, LEA, nation and inter-nation. Teachers are on the front line of reading instruction, but they require the informed support of PPCrats firstly, and parents and citizenry, secondly.

It seems to me, that, in a paragraph, is the evidence to date.

I hope I never come across an Ofsted report which says ‘Teaching in this school is poor because teachers have a good understanding of pupils’ attainment and progress and sometimes dare to say that a pupils hasn’t learned something yet.

Me neither, because that would be stupidity even beyond the pale of some Ofsteders.

I'd be inclined to say something like, "The status of reading instruction in this school is low because although teachers have a good understanding of pupils' attainment and progress, they are using inappropriate instructional products and protocols, most of which are obsolete litter generated by PPCrats." Of course, I'd clean up the verbiage and tone it down, but that's the drift.

As far as I know schools were reporting to parents and governors re. children’s progress in reading including phonics. This was informative and important
Precisely! And only a bit more than half the kids could pass a "good enough" reading Check. That percentage has been amazingly increased in just a few years! And it's been teachers who have done the job! Yet it's teachers (in the aggregate) who have joined PPCrats in bashing the indicator that "scientifically" shows their accomplishment. ????

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