Phonics test isn’t a performance measure, says Minister. But he praises free school for doing well on a measure that isn’t a measure.

Janet Downs's picture
Schools aren’t held to account in the phonics screening test, says Schools Reform Minister Nick Gibb (16 January 2015). That’s because it’s a ‘diagnostic tool’ and results aren’t published in school performance tables.

It’s arguable whether this ‘diagnostic tool’, which cost £4.3 million to administer in 2014, can tell teachers anything they don’t already know. But that aside, why are the results being used to praise certain schools when the test is only supposed to reveal problems individual pupils might face?

Schools are obliged to let parents know their own child’s results but there’s no compulsion to publish the results for the whole school. And whole school results are not publicly available. Neither should they be if they’re only supposed to be a ‘diagnostic tool’.

Despite phonics screening not being a performance measure, Gibb used the results of one primary free school, Ark Conway, to claim its 100% result in the test was down to the Government’s ‘rigorous approach to phonics’ (unspecified method) and the Government’s free schools and academies programme.

2% of primary schools reported that 100% passed the phonics screening test. It’s unlikely they were all free schools or academies. If they were, ministers would no doubt be screaming it from the roof tops. Claiming the results in one free school vindicate Government policies is as misleading (and as daft) as claiming the results in one local authority maintained school show the superiority of non-academies.

Schools, according to the Schools Reform Minister, ‘are not held to account for their performance in this diagnostic check’. But the Inspection Handbook (January 2015) says inspectors may use a 'range of indicators' to assess pupils' attainment over time. These indicators include the results of the phonics tests. Schools are, therefore, being ‘held to account’.

It’s hard not to believe that this supposed diagnostic tool isn’t yet another way of judging schools.

NOTE: This is an expanded version of the comment I posted today on this thread.

CORRECTION I originally wrote 'But Ofsted is expected to comment on performance in the test.' This has been changed - inspectors aren't expected to comment in all cases but can take the results of the phonics screening test into account if they think it is relevant. Thanks to Andy for drawing my attention to the latest edition of the School Inspection Handbook.
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Andy V's picture
Mon, 19/01/2015 - 19:54

"But Ofsted is expected to comment on performance in the test. Schools are, therefore, being ‘held to account’." Is there any evidence to support this assertion? I did not see any reference to it in the latest (Jan 15) Section 5 Inspection Handbook.

It is my understanding that the screening check is diagnostic and as such it is not unreasonable to expect a HT to make use of it in evaluating strengths and weaknesses in their school and also planning for change e.g. reviewing pre phonics screening teaching to see what can be learnt in terms of doing well, needs strengthening, what support intervention is needed for pupils who didn't achieve well and those that did. From this it follows that if a HT is not making best use of the data available to strengthen or bring about improvement they may of course leave themselves open to questioning by governing bodies, LAs, sponsors and inspection teams.

Brian's picture
Mon, 19/01/2015 - 20:51

'To the best of my knowledge the Phonics Screening Check is just that a check. It does not feature in the school performance tables nor in the Ofsted S5 Inspection Handbook, ..'

But it does appear in RaiseOnline where the school's performance in the check is compared with that of schools nationally. It's also marked with a G as being of particular interest to governors.

Raise is the only data document available to Ofsted inspectors before they arrive at the school.

Of course this doesn't prove the assertion that the phonics check is used to pillory schools but the way the data is presented certainly aligns itself with data which is.

Brian's picture
Mon, 19/01/2015 - 20:55

Apologies, not sure what happened here. I posted this response in another thread and it appeared here for some reason. Please remove as it doesn't make sense here as the quote I've used isn't in Andy's comment nor in Janet's text.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 20/01/2015 - 10:23

Andy - see Gibb's written answer (linked above) about how the results of the phonics test are used:

'The results are available on for schools to use and for local authorities and Ofsted as part of their inspections process.'

This, of course, contradicts his assertion that the test is only a diagnostic tool.

You're right, however, that inspectors are not expected to comment on the test according to the Inspectors Handbook. But some inspectors do so. For example, Grindon Hall Christian School was criticised for 'underperformance in the Year 1 phonics screening check'. It was this comment that made be think it was now expected. I shall amend the article accordingly.

While at South Wonston Primary, inspectors said results of the test were above the national average.

Schools should, of course, regularly assess their pupils for reading (and writing and speaking and maths). But this should be done when appropriate and to decide future lessons. It's quite right that schools should use whatever diagnostic tools they see fit. But these tests should not be mandatory. Nor should they be given all at the same time. And if it's only a diagnostic tool, then results should not need to be reported or appear in Raise On Line.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 20/01/2015 - 10:36

Andy - I have just checked the latest Inspection Handbook. It says inspectors should use a 'range of indicators' where relevant. These indicators include 'the outcomes of the most recent phonic screening check and any followup screening undertaken by the school'.

This would seem to support my assertion that the test is being used to hold schools to account. It's not mandatory for inspectors to look at the results but they can if they think it's relevant to comment on them.

Andy V's picture
Tue, 20/01/2015 - 11:11

We are back to the choice and use of words. The handbook refers to a "range of indicators" which you then translate as the screening check outcomes being used as a measure of "accountability". I do not see the comparison or equivalence between "indicators" and "accountability". Least of all do I see the connection between "indicators" and your original assertion that there was/is an Ofsted expectation in relation to the screening outcomes.

Andy V's picture
Tue, 20/01/2015 - 11:16

You assert that "Grindon Hall Christian School was criticised for 'underperformance in the Year 1 phonics screening check' ..." and I note your decision to describe part of a sentence in distinctly negative terms. However when the report is read holistically the comment in the report, "Last year’s performance, detailed in the school’s first nationally published results, showed some underperformance in the Year 1 phonics screening check" can be seen in a rather different light. That is to say it is an observation on a piece of data that is relevant to both the achievement of pupils (where it arises in the report) and the quality of teaching. Returning to the thrust of the wider report this observation resonates with other comments, see

1. All three findings in the Summary of Key Findings for Parents and Pupils
2. What does the School need to do to further improve?
3. The Achievement of Pupils:

a. "The vast majority of pupils generally start at the school with standards that range from broadly average to above average. By the time the pupils reach the end of Year 6, attainment levels are close to average" This fairly explicitly implies falling behind. That is to say from broadly to above average to close to average at KS2.

b. "Those Year 7 pupils who were below the expected standards at the end of Key Stage 2 ..." There are of course many reasons why children underperform by Year 6 but is is also possible that weakness in phonics delivery and/or failure to use the screening data to support pupils moving forward is contributing to pupils falling behind by Year 7.

4. Overall thrust of the L&M (including Governors) where a common thread is a weakness in monitoring and evaluation across the school

You may also wish to cross reference this with my response to Barry at 19.1.15 at 11.47 pm on the thread entitled "Pupils praised for reading results would have started school under Labour"

Andy V's picture
Tue, 20/01/2015 - 11:23

With regard to South Wonston Primary, I suggest that the reference to the phonics outcomes be taken in context rather than an atomised quote stripped of its overall use. That is to say, the under the achievement of pupils the reports states that "The teaching of sounds that letters make (phonics) was observed during the inspection and found to be very effective. This is confirmed by the results of the national screening check for phonics that show the attainment of Year 1 pupils to be above the national average." Even without going through the report for additional contextualisation and impact of the good phonics delivery, it is readily apparent that the statement is a corroboration of what was observed in lessons with hard evidence of impact (i.e. the screening check outcomes).

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 27/01/2015 - 13:56

Schools Minister Lord Nash also doesn't appear to have read DfE research. He said:

'Our phonics programme is now acknowledged to have been a substantial success.'

But DfE research found the majority of teachers were combining phonics with other methods (see sidebar above for link).

And if ministers want to continue commenting on 'phonics', they should at least make it clear what they mean. Is it 'systematic', 'synthetic' or 'systematic synthetic' or even 'analytic' (unlikely, but ministers should at least demonstrate they have some understanding of the difference).

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