Minister is right to promote reading for pleasure – but then spoils it by repeating dodgy data

Janet Downs's picture
Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, wants to ignite a passion for reading in children. There’s no shortage of groups to help him including Booktrust, Volunteer Reading and Bookstart. It’s a pity his Government slashed the funding for Bookstart – perhaps Mr Gibb will get it reinstated.

But what should have been an inspirational launch of his ideas has been dampened by the DfE’s insistence on using every opportunity to broadcast dubious data.

“Fifteen-year-olds in England are at least six months behind those in Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia, according to the Department’s analysis of the OECD's 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study,” trumpeted the press release without realising the implications of its own evidence.

The press release cited the NFER report on PISA 2009. This noted that Y11 pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were preparing for GCSEs when the rest of the world took the 2009 PISA tests. The OECD gave permission to move the tests to later in the year by which time the Y11 cohort earmarked for testing would have dispersed. The pupils assessed during November and December 2009 would have been in Year 10 when their international peers sat the papers. Pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland who took the PISA tests in their first term of Year 11 would, therefore, have received less schooling than would have been the case if the previous cohort had taken the test during the regular PISA assessment period.

So it should be expected that English 15 year-olds were some months behind the named high-scoring countries because they had spent several months less time in education before taking the tests.

The press release continues with another relentless promotion of phonics. It cites a DfE produced paper on phonics as evidence. This rightly highlights the importance of reading but then focuses on synthetic phonics which is only a part, albeit an important one, of a reading programme. The DfE evidence said a report it had commissioned revealed that “just 27% of schools participating in the [Year 1 Phonics Screening Check] pilot said they were delivering a dedicated phonics programme systematically, as the prime approach to reading new words.” What the report actually said was that 75% of schools were using a range of systems which included phonics, 66% taught phonics both discretely and integrated with other work, slightly less than 33% always taught phonics in discrete sessions and 61% said they taught phonics in discrete sessions 5 times a week while 27% taught it 4 times a week.

The DfE phonics paper cited “The PISA 2009 Study ‘How Big is the Gap?’”. This is not what it appears. It is not an OECD publication about PISA but a DfE produced one. It tries to establish equivalence between PISA tests and GCSE. OECD is quite clear: reading, along with science and maths, is “covered not merely in terms of mastery of the school curriculum, but in terms of important knowledge and skills needed in adult life.” GCSEs test mastery of the school curriculum so it is dishonest to claim equivalence between them.

These are more examples of the DfE presenting data in a misleading way. Is this deliberate or is it just incompetence?

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