Schools minister Nick Gibb is triumphant – the increased proportion of pupils passing the phonics screening test vindicates Government reforms in the teaching of reading, he claims.
But reading results at the end of Key Stage 1 haven’t increased this year. If Gibb’s logic is correct – that improved phonics test results year on year mean improved reading results further down the line - then the 2015 KS1 results should have improved proportionately.
But they didn’t.
That’s not to say a rise in the proportion reaching the expected level in reading at the end of Key Stage 1 from 85% in 2012 to 90% today isn’t positive. But it can’t be said it’s down to the phonics test or results would have risen again this year. It’s more likely teachers have improved reading instruction. Research commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE) last year found teachers recognised the importance of phonics but the majority combined it with other methods.
Writing in the Telegraph, Gibb claims credit for the use of phonics in schools in England. But the Eurydice 2011 report on the Teaching of Reading in Europe found phonics was already embedded in English schools.
Gibb told the Telegraph that PISA showed 17% of UK 15 year-olds were low performers in reading. This, he said, was a national disgrace. But the 17% figure is slightly lower than the OECD average of 18%. That’s no reason to be complacent, of course, but Gibb implies the proportion of low-performers in reading is far worse in the UK than in other OECD countries. Not so.
The phonics check is supposed to be a diagnostic tool to help teachers identify struggling readers. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent the ‘light touch’ phonics check is less for the benefit of pupils and teachers than for ministers who use results to name-and-shame.
And Gibb has done just that. The DfE press release lists the ‘top ten’ (mainly LAs around London) and the ‘bottom ten’ (in the Midlands and North).
Peterborough is among those which will be ‘challenged’ to say how they plan to improve ‘swiftly’. Peterborough’s also in the firing line for being one of the worst performers in Key Stage 2 Sats. The city, then, can expect a double dose of Gibb’s challenge.
But Ofsted judged Peterborough’s school improvement support to be ‘effective’ in March 2014. Inspectors and the LA recognised there was still some way to go but the city was taking steps in the right direction.
Peterborough’s MP, Stewart Jackson, could explain why test results in Peterborough are low – the large number of immigrant children arriving at all times of the year with little or no English. He has requested extra funding for those areas of the country faced with this problem.
It’s unlikely this will have any impact on Gibb’s desire to challenge Peterborough. But it’s not an effective strategy to name-and-shame an authority which already has effective school improvement support working in challenging circumstances.
Gibb’s rhetoric, then, takes credit for something that had already happened, implies there are far more low-performing readers in England than in other countries and attempts to sound tough by challenging low-performing LAs irrespective of whether the school improvement support is effective or not. I expect there’ll be more of the same next year, and the next….