PM takes time out from Brexit to jump on the phonics bandwagon

Janet Downs's picture

The PM took time out from the EU to debate public services in the West Midlands on Wednesday 6 December

Tory MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan used the occasion to lob Theresa May a question about whether ‘yesterday’s reading standards results are a vindication of our reforms and our amazing teachers’ efforts, which will allow our children to force a truly global Britain?’

It's unclear what phonics has to do with public services in the West Midland but it appears the PM had been primed.  She had statistics to hand.  But the data referred not to the performance of English ten-year-olds in the global reading test PIRLS but to the proportion of six-year-olds who passed the ‘reading checks’ in 2012 (58%) compared with 2017 (81%).

The ‘reading check’, as the PM should be expected to know, doesn’t check reading.  It checks decodingThe ability to decode words out of context is not reading.  Nevertheless, the PM thinks deciphering stand-alone words is ‘building a Britain that is fit for the future’.

The PM praised the ‘Minister for School Standards’, Nick Gibb, for establishing a ‘revolution in phonics’ which had ‘dramatically improved’ school standards.

But, as I pointed out earlier, the ‘dramatic’ improvement in the PIRLS test happened not in 2016 but in 2011 long before Coalition education reforms were imposed.  The 2016 results were better than in 2011 but the leap wasn’t as great as between 2006 and 2011.  

PIRLS doesn’t test decoding but comprehension, retrieval and inference.  These are not skills assessed in the phonics screening test.  Yet the Department for Education (DfE) media department and Tory politicians from the PM downwards think success in these skills is because pupils could decode stand-alone words.  Some of these words are pseudo words which don’t exist in English.  Incomprehensible words can’t contribute in any way to comprehension.

The PM had not been properly briefed.  The Department for Education report on PIRLS said it was too soon to claim Coalition policy reforms were responsible for the rise in England’s PIRLS score in 2016. 

Among all the mutual back-slapping, however, several points were missed including:

  • England’s pupils were ‘significantly below’ Northern Ireland where it appears phonics is integrated into a wider approach.  
  • England’s pupils performed ‘relatively better’ with ‘higher-level’ comprehension skills than with 'simpler retrieval and straightforward inferencing skills.’  This would suggest more work needs to be done on the latter.
  • 25% of England’s ten-year-olds said they arrived at school hungry every day or almost every day.  It’s no consolation that 25% is the global average – such a high figure is unacceptable.  It might have been expected that such a sobering figure would have reduced the self-congratulatory flimflam.

Let’s hope the PM is better briefed during the next round of Brexit negotiations and that sober analysis will trump propaganda.


NOTES: For data on hunger see page 284 here.  

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