On Year One Phonic Checks, identifying need and Hyde Park Corner


I am always most pleased to be invited to speak at conferences, seminars, symposiums and to be in London again, for the two fall hand in hand, most naturally and frequently.

I was fortunate to be invited to speak at the Westminster Education Forum’s seminar on Assessment and Testing in Primary Schools on Tuesday 27th November. I enjoyed a very enlightening debate and heard some excellent speakers contribute to the agenda, in the most sublime of surroundings – the Caledonian Club on Halkin Street.

The library was most impressive and I would have been terribly happy, curled before the huge fire, reading from one of its fine selection of biographies, drinking coffee, eating those lovely shortbread biscuits, if it were not for an agenda to consider, and my contribution…


Ballroom at the Caledonian Club

So, here is my contribution to the panel discussion on Year One Phonic Checks. For all those delegates attending the event, this will also form a part of the event transcript out soon.

I have raised my concerns previously regarding the Year 1 phonic checks prior to its implementation, and there is nothing in the results that lead me to believe I should be any less concerned now.

There is much misguided and flawed thinking in the premise behind the Checks – that they may be the best way to raise reading standards and prevent children with poorer skills slipping through the net. I do not in the least believe that to be the case.

The SEN Code of Practice defines special needs as the point at which children require educational provision which is additional to, or otherwise different from, the provision made generally for children of their age.

One of the key points to emerge from Ofsted’s Review of Special Educational Needs and Disability has been that of teachers’ over-identification of special needs, a concern that forms the heart of much of the SEN Green Paper of March 2011.

I’m interested then to note the plethora of editorial comment that points to the need for additional support for some 235,000 children, or the 42% of children taking the phonic check who did not meet the pass mark, for the moment we begin to talk about ‘additional support’ we are talking really of special needs.

Journalists over simplifying a complex issue perhaps, creating alarm at the expense of parental confidence –  but nevertheless, pointing to vast numbers of children who are likely to fail in their reading, if not now, in the near future.

When we raise parental expectations, there is a need to deliver. So, I do not see that it is helpful to have our Education and Childcare Minister, stating that there are “many thousands of children who will now receive the extra support they need to develop a love of reading.”

Actually, I would question – is that a necessary or logical outcome? Is it helpful to set up that expectation? Is that a sensible response, given all the work that has gone before to reduce expectations of support, to move away from teacher’s over-reliance on seeing low attainment as special educational need.

If we want to ensure that children do not slip through the net nor add to our burgeoning special needs registers, there is much that can be done that doesn’t submit six year olds to early experiences of failure, that does not require testing, that affords instead, teachers an opportunity to provide a range of approaches to the teaching of reading, recognizing individual need, difference and learning style.

I do not subscribe to the view that the phonic checks have been set at too high a level, given the pass rate. For some children, the tests will have been set too low – for others, at an unattainable level, even if they were to re-sit them for each of their remaining five years in primary education. The wrong demands are being made of our teaching profession, the wrong questions asked of our young school population.

One of the most dangerous things we can do is to plant the seed of doubt in children’s minds – doubts about their capacity to learn, to understand, to succeed. When a child believes they cannot succeed, they invariably fail.

To raise reading standards there is a need to consider, what are the factors that create the barrier to developing reading skills?  Is it the emergence of a learning difficulty – specific, general, moderate or more complex? Is it a disability – visual impairment, speech and language difficulty, hearing impairment, Autistic Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder? Is it disadvantage, poverty and deprivation that hinder that child’s achievement?

In all instances, special educational need, disability, disadvantage – it is understanding that is key – knowledge and understanding of what is really going on in a young child’s life that creates the barrier to learning.  Good teachers have that knowledge at their finger tips – they do not need measures to keep them accountable, but the means to ensure the right support can be given, to the right children and their families, at the right time.

All policies are borne out of a particular climate and context. In these challenging austere times, many families have suffered as their lives and opportunities to enrich their child’s early learning experiences, have been curtailed by economic necessity. Access to public libraries, to visiting library vans, has been significantly reduced. For children living in homes where books are not bought, but loaned, opportunities to grow up in a learning friendly household are severely impacted.

The Year One Phonic Check is a flawed, divisive and crude mechanism for measuring standards. It is poorly thought through, at great public cost, with the capacity to create unnecessary tensions, as it submits many thousands of children to experiences of failure.

I see in the Year One Phonic Check, opportunities, not necessarily to ensure children do not slip through the net, but for the Department for Education to ensure that schools and teachers are compliant, are monitored for their capacity to drive home government policy on the teaching of reading.  That would be fine if what was presented was in any measure, half-way decent, but I do not believe that to be the case.

There is much good, sound, practical advice in the All Party Parliamentary Group for Education’s report of July 2011 – Report of the Inquiry into Overcoming Barriers to Literacy – http://www.educationappg.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/APPG-for-Education-Literacy-Inquiry-final-report.pdf

It seems a pity the Dept for Education has not heeded that advice.

Thank you

I always enjoy the question and answer session that follows the panel presentations. It is a challenge, often, keeping pace with the questions that are posed from the audience, but that part of the event is highly rewarding.

Speakers I must reference, whose views, comment and insight impressed me highly, include –

  • Professor Peter Tymms, School of Education, Durham University
  • Hazel Danson, Chair, Educaiton & Equality Committee, NUT
  • Alison Peacock, Headteacher, The Wroxham School
  • Professor Dominic Wyse, Professor of Early Childhood and Primary Education, University of London
  • Matthew Young, Assessment and Accountability Division, Dept for Education

My final thoughts are of the stunning London landscape that greets the eye on departing from Hyde Park Corner tube station (exit 3) – an area I do not know well at all. On a finer day, there is much here that I wish to explore further. It is really an extraordinarily visually rich corner of London.

So I will leave you with one quotation from the Duke of Wellington, which seems aptly to coincide with my thoughts post-seminar –

All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavor to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I called ‘guessing what was at the  other side of the hill.’



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