English 10 year-olds are now joint eighth in the world in reading as measured by the international PIRLS test.
The Department for Education (DfE) says:
‘…this year’s results are the country’s best to date and a dramatic improvement on the 2006 results, when England was ranked 19th out of 45 countries.’
Dramatic improvement indeed. Except the DfE has omitted to mention the 2012 results when English pupils leapt from 19th in 2006 to joint 10th in 2011 when the tests were taken..
What PIRLS 2016 actually shows is that England climbed from joint 10th in 2011 to joint 8th in 2016. An improvement, yes, but not such a dramatic improvement as the DfE claims.
Schools minister Nick Gibb was quick to claim responsibility:
‘Today’s results put the success of our increased emphasis on phonics and continued focus on raising education standards on a global scale.'
This was followed by an endorsement by Mark Lehain, Director of Parents and Teachers for Excellence and founder of Bedford Free School, said:
‘This adds to the already substantial base of evidence that systematic synthetic phonics are the most effective way of starting a child’s lifelong love of reading…’
Except that the ‘substantial base of evidence’ shows the systematic teaching of any method of phonics is an effective way of teaching reading. And the EEF toolkit, regularly praised by ministers, found there was not enough evidence for the sole use of synthetic phonics.
Lehain gushed on:
‘There is also a wider point about the reforms of the past seven years. A great deal of bravery was required to really shake up the system and implement them, but here is yet more evidence that this was the right thing to do.’
But there is no evidence that reforms since 2010, however brave Lehain believes them to be, are responsible for the rise in ranking of English 10 year-olds in PIRLS 2016.
The great leap forward, remember, happened in 2011. And instead of praising the results (published in 2012), ministers downplayed them at the time.
Would it be true to say, then, that reforms put in place by Labour were actually responsible for the improved performance of English 10 year-olds in international reading tests?
The answer is ‘Possibly not’. Correlation isn’t causation. And teachers teach reading not politicians however knowledgeable they claim themselves to be.
What is known is that phonics was already embedded in the teaching of reading before Gibb pushed synthetic phonics and his phonics screening test.
Omitting the PIRLS results for tests taken in 2011 to imply Coalition reforms are responsible for the improved performance of English ten year-olds in reading is a statistical sleight of hand. Yet another example of how the DfE uses data to misrepresent and mislead.
CORRECTION 6 Decemeber 2017 08.25. I have altered the above to make it clear that PIRLS results published in 2012 referred to tests taken in 2011. The original article used 2012 throughout which didn't differentiate between when the results were published and when the tests were actually taken.