Pupils praised for reading results would have started school under Labour

Janet Downs's picture
‘The 2014 Key Stage 2 results show that our reforms are already having an effect; a record proportion of children (89%) reached the expected standard of reading,’ said School Reform Minister, Nick Gibb, in a written Parliamentary answer.

Gibb seems unaware that pupils who took Sats in 2014 would have started school seven years ago in 2007/8. It is misleading, therefore, for him to claim the high proportion of children reaching Level 4 in the Reading test was entirely due to Government reforms.

However, it would be equally misleading to say this raised performance was entirely down to Labour policies such as Literacy Hours and the previous Government's endorsement of synthetic phonics. If the rise in performance genuinely means a rise in reading competence among 11 year-olds (and isn’t the result of teaching to the test) it’s because of the efforts of teachers. The majority of these teachers have, according to Department for Education (DfE) research, taught phonics alongside other methods.

Gibb seems to have missed this research. He still claims the teaching of synthetic phonics is the ‘most effective way of teaching all children to read’. But most of the evidence he uses to support this statement showed the systematic teaching of any method of phonics, not just synthetic phonics, was effective.

Unfortunately, Gibb seems unaware of this. Whether this is due to misinformation or a dogged refusal to change his mind is unclear. But the Education Select Committee was sufficiently concerned about how the DfE used evidence to support phonics teaching that it asked for comments in an on-line consultation (now closed).

The consultation received 90 comments. Some supported the sole use of synthetic phonics. Others pointed out the misreading of the evidence cited by the Government, as I have done. Some noted the DfE used the terms ‘phonics’, ‘synthetic phonics’ and ‘systematic phonics’ interchangeably as if it were unaware of any difference, as I have done. And, as I said in my response to the consultation, such ignorance on the part of policy makers and the DfE is unforgiveable.

NOTE: You can read my responses to the Education Select Committee consultation here (scroll down).
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Patrick Hadley's picture
Thu, 15/01/2015 - 21:08

It is a fundamental Conservative principle that when test results improve at Key Stage 2 this is because of government initiatives, but when GCSE pass rates rise it is just "grade inflation".

Andrew Old's picture
Fri, 16/01/2015 - 17:57

I know Janet is the expert on selectively picking sources, in order to mislead. But she's be so selective here that I'm not actually sure what she's arguing for.

What does she suggest? Getting rid of the advice to teach using phonics (which appears to have resulted in an improvement in reading)? Encouraging people to use methods of phonics other than synthetic phonics? If so, which ones?

Or was the post written just to confuse matters in the hope that people will not realise the extent of the evidence in favour of synthetic phonics, and against the methods (usually based on guessing) that the phonics denialists normally put forward?

John Mountford's picture
Fri, 16/01/2015 - 23:07

Andrew, by your own admission, you are unclear what Janet is arguing. Your remark about her expertise in "selectively picking sources, in order to mislead." is what is actually misleading. Careful reading of her brief post reveals exactly what she is arguing for - transparency.

The argument in favour of using 'synthetic' phonics "first, fast and only," is not a done deal. Reaching this conclusion, and wishing to gain evidence in this matter, the Education Select Committee launched its own on-line consultation BECAUSE it was sufficiently concerned about how the DfE used evidence to support phonics teaching. Having read most of the submissions, I can confirm there is 'evidence' from a variety of educators for and against but no unanimous view. There were those respondents who believe 'synthetic phonics' to be a total solution to teaching reading, others who questioned its benefits over mixed methods of phonics teaching and some who called for professionals to have greater freedom over which children required which particular interventions. Many believed that if young people are to grow up as readers they need to enjoy reading and that the quality of teaching not the frequency of high stakes testing contributes most to that objective.

With respect, Andrew, more informed commentators are well aware that the extent and reliability of the evidence in favour of synthetic phonics, as opposed to the use of mixed phonics teaching, is underwhelming. Careful re-reading of Janet's post will confirm that she, along with the majority of other commentators, does not deny there is a place for phonics teaching. The point, that is totally missed by those with a bias to feed, is that no one method of teaching children to read will ever suit all children. Actually, you don't even need to be a teacher to accept this simple truth.

Andrew Old's picture
Mon, 19/01/2015 - 19:10

You appear to be assuming that if people express disagreement then they must have reasonable arguments. This is not the case. People often ignore the evidence, particularly when it shows them to be wrong. The evidence on phonics is clear. Hence the reason we get efforts to obscure matters, like Janet's post above, which provided no evidence for the "mixed methods" you support, but did try to generate doubt about the evidence on phonics.

Brian's picture
Fri, 16/01/2015 - 19:35

I can't see anything in Janet's post which suggests she's against the use of phonics in teaching reading. The use of the term 'synthetic phonics' as representing all phonic analysis seems to be the point. Phonics has a part to play in teaching of reading but it's not a magic bullet. Other approaches are not 'based on guessing' any more than a child trying use phonics to decode an unknown word has to 'guess' whether it's phonetically regular or not. I had an interesting few minutes this week watching two beginner readers trying to decode 'one' using synthetic phonics. Start with 'o' as in 'orange' and see where that gets you.

What I do know is that I'm aware of a number of schools with outstanding reading results (including children loving reading ... try testing that!) but relatively low phonic check outcomes which are now diverting resources into phonics teaching in case Ofsted decides phonic teaching is a problem.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 19/01/2015 - 10:56

UPDATE. Nick Gibb, in a written answer dated 16 January said the results of the KS1 phonics screening aren't a performance measure. But that didn't stop him using the results to praise one primary free school, Ark Conway, for reaching 100%. He claimed the success wasn't just down to a 'rigorous approach to phonics' (unspecified method) but also because of the Government's free schools and academies programme.

2% of primary schools also had a 100% score. It's unlikely that all of these were academies or free schools.

If the phonics screening test isn't a performance measure, then why is Gibb promoting one school (which just happens to be a free school) on this measure? It's supposed to be a 'diagnostic tool' (although I suspect, but have no proof, that it merely confirms what teachers already know). So why use a 'diagnostic tool' as a way of judging schools?

The answers are, of course:

(1) It's another measure which can be used to pillory schools;
(2) It allows ministers to praise their favoured schools and imply that high results were down to the school's structure.

Andrew Old's picture
Mon, 19/01/2015 - 19:21

And another one who goes from claiming not to be against phonics, to defending discouraging children from decoding and spreading myths about how phonics works.

With regard to the rest:

Ofsted claim they will not use the phonics check that way as it is diagnostic, so there isn't a problem in having a low score if there is no subsequent problem in learning to read. As for the idea that there are schools which do poorly in the phonics check but well in teaching reading, the evidence suggests that they are unusual. Achievement in the phonics check seems closely connected to achievement in reading:

From https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/fil...

"99% of pupils who met the expected standard of phonic decoding in year 1 went on to achieve level 2 or above in reading at the end of key stage 1. 43% of these pupils achieved level 3 or above in reading. 88% of pupils who met the expected standard of phonic decoding at the end of year 2 achieved level 2 or above in reading. Only 34% of pupils who didn’t meet the expected standard of phonic decoding by the end of year 2 achieved level 2 or above in reading"

Andy V's picture
Mon, 19/01/2015 - 19:46

Janet, what is the evidence for your statements:

"why use a ‘diagnostic tool’ as a way of judging schools?"


"The answers are, of course:

(1) It’s another measure which can be used to pillory schools;
(2) It allows ministers to praise their favoured schools and imply that high results were down to the school’s structure."

Perhaps the answer can be had from your earlier comment "although I suspect, but have no proof, that it merely confirms what teachers already know", which despites its stridency has no evidence to support it either,

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, so I am at a loss as to how you can tangibly support your assertions.

Brian's picture
Mon, 19/01/2015 - 20:53

‘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

Andy V's picture
Mon, 19/01/2015 - 23:47

I agree that RoL is an important source of data for inspection purposes but differ in opinion that it is the "only data". I am led to believe that Ofsted teams also make use the most recent school performance tables, the data dashboard and most recent Ofsted reports, all of which are readily available in the public domain. With regard to the outcome of the screening check reported in RoL I am led to understand that inspectors consider this as part of the school evidence base in relation to triangulating the evaluation of overall progress within the school (e.g. a potential source indicating strengths and weaknesses for pupils going forward and strengths and weaknesses of a school's pedagogy in the time leading up to the screening). This does not lend itself to support Janet's assertions.

With regard to the national average outcome for the screening check, there is no DFE benchmark or floor target and it is not therefore unreasonable to deduce that the national average data is there to enable HTs to gauge how their school sits in relation to that.

My perception is that the key rationale for the screening check is for outcomes to be used diagnostically within schools: it contributes to assisting HTs, GBs, LAs, Sponsors in knowing the strengths, weaknesses and impacts of phonics for their pupils and their progress pre and post the check.

Without evidence to the contrary I cannot subscribe to Janet's view of the screening and its purpose. The fact that politicians persist making statements that can be characterised as ranging from disingenuous through propagandist to wilfully skewed does not mean that the screening is being used by others to pillory or otherwise undermine schools. Rather it is one of the myriad of reasons why it is so desperately important that education be removed from the party political arena and general election seesaw that has for decades damaged the life chances of successive generations.

Brian's picture
Tue, 20/01/2015 - 19:07

Ofsted do indeed use school performance tables and the data dashboard but as these are just subsets of the data used in Raise I don't think they can be counted as additional data used by inspectors.

I agree that there is no national benchmark but there is a national outcome reported in Raise. This may, of course, be intended only for use by the Headteacher but of course Ofsted inspectors also use it. And some make the same use as Gibb. They ascribe any improvements in reading to the use of synthetic phonics, ignoring any other changes school may have made. They also tend to ascribe any deficiencies in reading to a phonic problem. How many do that? My experience is limited but, thankfully, a tiny minority.

John Mountford's picture
Mon, 19/01/2015 - 21:51

What is the clear evidence on phonics you refer to, Andrew?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 20/01/2015 - 14:43

Andy - the clause 'but I have no proof' means 'I have no evidence'. It's an opinion. And there may well be 'no evidence to support it'. That's what I said.

Andy V's picture
Tue, 20/01/2015 - 14:51

But that isn't supported by the rest of the comments within which your "clause" appears. Not the least example of the potential contradiction or misleading view you put forward can be read in your statement:

"The answers are, of course:

(1) It’s another measure which can be used to pillory schools"

That seems pretty darned unequivocal to me.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 20/01/2015 - 16:24

Evidence that phonics reading test results are being used to pillory local authorities:

'In boroughs such as Newham in east London, one of the poorest parts of the capital, 80% of their year 1 pupils achieve the standard. However, in more prosperous East Sussex, just 69% do. Why is there such a marked difference? Because in Newham, the directly-elected mayor Sir Robin Wales is a committed supporter of phonics.'

Nick Gibb 25 September 2014.

But being a 'committed supporter of phonics' doesn't necessarily correlate with success in the screening test. If Gibb had checked, he would have found East Sussex has published a document to support systematic synthetic phonics teaching in schools.

Andy V's picture
Tue, 20/01/2015 - 16:43

Take it up with Nick Gibb he speaks either off the cuff for himself/party or on behalf of DFE but he certainly doesn't speak for Ofsted. Gibb v SMW ... no contest ... I'd put my money on SMW.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 20/01/2015 - 17:21

Andy - Gibb wasn't speaking 'Off the cuff'. He (or someone on his behalf) wrote the Independent article linked above in which he slated East Sussex. Gibb's words are widely reported and, yes, you're right, his words are misleading. Unfortunately, his views have had a disproportionate effect on teaching in England.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 20/01/2015 - 17:32

Ofsted gives detailed info to inspectors about how to judge phonics teaching. It advises inspectors to gather evidence from the test. It stresses the test only checks 'phonic decoding' NOT wider reading (something Gibb should note) and stresses the importance of a language rich curriculum. Ofsted warns teachers not to delay teaching wider literacy and comprehension.

Interestingly, it uses NFER findings to say 'a high proportion of schools are clearly teaching phonics, but not necessarily in the way a systematic synthetic approach would prescribe.' It's misleading, Ofsted said, to say 60% of schools taught synthetic phonics 'first and fast'. That's something else Gibb should keep in mind the next time he claims a relentless focus on 'phonics' (ie synthetic phonics) is behind a rise in the number of pupils passing a 'short reading test' (ie a decoding test).

Andy V's picture
Tue, 20/01/2015 - 17:51

Whether off the cuff or pre-scripted the point is that like Gove and Ms Morgan who are criticised for misusing statistics and the former being highly creative in his sound bites, Gibb's is spouting nonsense that doesn't stand-up.

May I, dare I, ask what the evidence is for your sweeping statement "his [Gibb's] views have had a disproportionate effect on teaching in England"?

Andy V's picture
Tue, 20/01/2015 - 18:05

With regard to guidance to inspectors on phonics I find it greatly reassuring that Ofsted is taking the time and trouble prepare its people to understand, appreciate what they see in phonics lessons. Without it they'd find it incredibly difficult to identify the evidence and evaluate phonics delivery and reach judgements.

I also note that the document you linked to does not referring to phonics testing but uses the terminology 'check'.

It should come as no surprise, and again I am reassured by this, that inspectors triangulate the practice of teaching phonics in lessons with a school's screening check outcomes. That is to say, a judgement within achievement of pupils and/or teaching and learning that phonics delivery is good would stand out like a sore thumb if the overall school screening outcomes were weak. I would also hope that they track forward to see what a school may have done to support pupils post the screening and in the SIP to see what was being done to improve the phonics.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 21/01/2015 - 17:31

Andy - re Gibb's interference (sorry, influence) on the English education system. First, his absolute faith in synthetic phonics has resulted in the waste-of-money phonics screening test and his policy of 'matched funding' for Gov't approved synthetic phonics materials which would have been better spend allowing heads to use their autonomy to choose the reading materials best suited to their pupils (ie books for the library, perhaps).

Second, it's well known he keeps a copy of Hirsch's core knowledge curriculum book stuffed with post-it notes. This formed the basis of the minister-promoted Core Curriculum UK books which (as I've noted elsewhere) contain errors and badly written renderings of popular stories. It also influenced the revised national curriculum - it was his and Gove's interference which provoked the resignation of two members of the national curriculum expert panel.

Third, his prejudices against what he calls 'progressive' education (ie any method he doesn't agree with), 'academics' and discussions in class ('chat') is gleefully regurgitated in sections of the press (eg DT, Daily Mail) and on Conservative Home (not my normal visiting place but I pop in and comment occasionally.)

Andy V's picture
Wed, 21/01/2015 - 17:40

You cite issues that go the heart of Mr Gibb's credibility and reinforce the reasons why education is too important to remain a party political football but I am still wary of the "disproportionate" aspect of his effect on education in England. For me his impact is rather less than that of Gove and some of his close advisors.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 21/01/2015 - 17:54

Andy - I meant disproportionate to Gibb's intellect (meow!) . You're right, of course, Gove had a far, far greater impact but Gibb has been there acting as his mouthpiece and consigliere. As the Independent made clear, it's widely believed Gove insisted on Gibb being returned as school minister when Gove was demoted.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 20/01/2015 - 16:33

If the tests are for diagnostic reasons only and not for judging the performance of schools, why is Nick Gibb writing congratulatory letters to primary schools where more than 95% of pupils passed the test?

Andy V's picture
Tue, 20/01/2015 - 16:40

Best you ask Nick Gibb that. Lets face it MPs are not generally well known for delivering accurate information and (understatement of the millennia) he is by no means the first to make a misleading statement for the purposes of a political sound bite.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 20/01/2015 - 16:52

David Reedy, formerly Principal Primary Adviser in Barking and Dagenham LA, Cambridge Primary Review Trust co-director and General Secretary of the UK Literacy Association, shares my opinion that the screening test is 'high stakes':

At the same time, UKLA evidence to the Select Committee (downloadable here) among other things cites the NFER finding that only some three in ten literacy co-ordinators saw any value in the screening test.

I know that citing someone else's opinion isn't evidence but it shows I'm not alone in thinking that the test is being treated as more than a diagnostic tool and schools fear being held to account for the results.

Andy V's picture
Tue, 20/01/2015 - 17:43

Irrespective as to what Mr Reedy believes the screening check is not a "test". This is evident from the documentation relating to it and reaffirmed by the fact that it does not appear in:

1. The school performance tables
2. The Data Dashboard
3. Any DFE floor targets

"The phonics check will help teachers identify the children who need extra help so they can receive the support they need to improve their reading skills. These children will then be able to retake the check in year 2." [Resits in year 2: does mean Primary schools have a green light for multiple entry now outlawed in KS4 :-) ]


The Inspection handbook only refers to the screening in terms of being one of a range of potential indicators regarding progress and achievement.

I can only repeat that it is my understanding that the screening check outcomes enables schools to look forward and backwards in relation to supporting pupils (weak and strong) post screening (e.g. helping turn strong screening outcomes into L5s and new replacement) and facilitate review and evaluation of pre-screening delivery to enable targeted changes and (hopefully) strengthening pupil achievement in the screening.

This makes the screening a very useful tool in the diagnostic kit bag and provides valuable data to Headteachers. Arguably, because of the small numbers of pupils involved in each school it is possible to provide peronalised/highly targeted intervention support to pupils post screening and in similar vein provide an trail to follow in unpicking the pre screening aptitude of each pupil.

NFER citing 3 in ten (less than 1/3) of literacy co-ords seeing any value is hardly compelling evidence against the screening. Indeed, it explicitly means that 7 in ten (a whopping 70%) appear to see value.

Coming back to our original interaction, it is not your or anyone else's opinion that is being debated. Rather it is how the issue is being presented. That is to say, on reading your comments it is strikingly apparent that you present the matter in more concrete terms than personal opinion and do not or cannot bring evidence to bear in support of what you are saying.

Barry Wise's picture
Tue, 20/01/2015 - 19:51

I reckon Andy (at 20/01/15 at 5:43 pm) is absolutely right. That said, it might be better for society in general if Janet's (paranoid-ish interpretation was the one that prevailed. The SFR that Andrew Old links to shows a remarkable improvement year on year. It seems unlikely that the cohorts were greatly different in natural ability, so it is probably the case that dramatic improvements (such as a 5 percentage point uplift) were down to schools deciding they'd better take the teaching of phonics a bit more seriously in case Ofsted came a-calling. Is there still slack enough for another 5 percentage point uplift? Surely it's worth one more turn of the screw to find out.....

Andy V's picture
Tue, 20/01/2015 - 20:04

It is to be regretted that any - no matter how tiny a minority - abuse the screening check data and/or the impact of phonics. Neither practice is tenable particularly so if other interventions implemented a school has been ignored. If this is happening, and I'm not suggesting it hasn't, it raises a question for Ofsted and the outgoing ISPs regarding quality assurance.

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