DfE report contradicts DfE spin: it’s ‘too hasty’ to say policy changes improved reading performance in global test

Janet Downs's picture

‘It’s too hasty to claim that these improvements [in global reading test PIRLS] are attributable to policy changes…’ says the Department for Education report into PIRLS.  

The DfE media department seems to have missed the DfE conclusion that it is rash to say Coalition reforms caused the results rise.  Its press release gave the misleading impression that policies introduced since 2010 were responsible for the ‘dramatic improvement since 2006’.   

Schools minister Nick Gibb also appears not to have read the DfE report.   Writing in the Telegraph he babbled, ‘It’s official.  The UK’s phonics revolution has dramatically improved school standards’.

This is spin.  His ‘controversial’ reform to require schools to use phonics wasn’t responsible.  The largest jump from the low 2006 results occurred in 2011 before the ‘controversial’ reform. 

Gibb was right to say there had been a statistically significant rise in results from 2011 but it does not follow that his reforms were responsible.   The teaching of phonics in English schools was already embedded before Gibb became schools minister.

What wasn’t established was the phonics screening test.  This began in 2012 and pupils taking part in PIRLS 2016 would have been the first to take it.   Was phonics screening responsible for the rise in results since 2011?

The answer is No.

The DfE report found the Y1 phonics test was the ‘most predictive’ of PIRLS results.  Y2 less so.  But predicting a result is not the same as causing it

The report admitted the 2016 PIRLS result provided ‘additional support for the efficacy of phonics approaches’ but urged caution:

‘…the current results should be somewhat cautiously interpreted given that other countries have also adopted phonics approaches over varying lengths of time and the results have been mixed in terms of average PIRLS performance.’

It should be noted that ‘phonics approaches’ were not confined to Gibb’s hobby-horse: synthetic phonics.  The word ‘synthetic’ does not appear in the DfE report.

As I wrote yesterday, phonics approaches are used in Northern Ireland where ten year-olds performed better than English ten year-olds in PIRLS.  But they are combined with other strategies and rely heavily on teacher professionalism.  

But Gibb downplays teacher professionalism.  He imposes his views on teachers in a way that would be unacceptable if the Health Secretary imposed particular ways of treating patients on doctors.  And now it appears Ofsted is also undermining teacher professionalism by requiring all reception teachers to use systematic synthetic phonics. 

Both Ofsted and Gibb should reflect on the Northern Irish strategy to improve literacy and numeracy, ‘Count, read: succeed’.  It is a far more nuanced policy than Gibb’s sledgehammer approach.  It doesn’t boast that it’s ‘controversial’ or claim its reforms were ‘brave’.  Instead it places responsibility for deciding the best methods of teaching reading where it should be – with teachers.

NOTES:  I would like to thank David Libbert for drawing my attention to ‘Count, read: succeed’,.

CORRECTION 8 December 2017.  The original article said 'The largest jump from the low 2016 results occurred ...'  The date should have been 2006.  It has now been corrected

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Michael Rosen's picture
Fri, 08/12/2017 - 00:12

Systematic synthetic phonics are taught 'first and fast' or 'first, fast and only' in Reception and Year 1. The PIRLS test was administered on 9/10 year olds, (Year 5) was it not? That's four years in which other variables come into play e.g. the fact that the government has made explicit, something that teachers were keen on doing namely provide a rich diet of nursery rhymes, stories and poems. One very keen phonics exponent (head teacher) told me that he was devoting over an hour every morning to this, done in a free, non-testing sort of a way, right from Year 1. Given that the PIRLS test was about retrieval, inference, comprehension and interpretation, we might be forgiven for thinking that an emphasis on books and literature was at least partly possible.
Further possibilities: part of the problem of tests for young children is for them to understand exactly what the questions mean. Schools are seeing a dramatic rise in results in the SATs if they specifically coach test-technique, teaching the children how to interpret the questions. IN other words, the phenomenon of doing well in tests, is partly explained by an increased wising up by teachers and pupils in learning how to teach and 'get' test questions!
Slightly tongue in cheek, I also say that the phenomenal success of Julia Donaldson, selling millions of copies of the Gruffalo and other stories, might in its own way also contribute to early learners 'getting' the flow and meaning of fiction. Why not?!

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