In 2016, English primary pupils were ‘the first pupils to take part in the PIRLS study since the Government’s education reforms in 2010,’ said schools minister Nick Gibb in a written answer.
PIRLS, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, is an international test taken every five years by 9-10 year olds. England and Northern Ireland both take part.
Northern Irish pupils outperformed English ones by a significant amount in 2016, the results showed. That doesn’t mean English pupils did badly. The reverse is true – they reached their highest ranking since PIRLS began in 2001.
Gibb was keen to claim this success was down to ‘the Government’s education reforms’. In his statement, he implied these began immediately in 2010. They didn’t, of course. The Phonics Screening Test wasn’t implemented until 2012.
This makes his answer rather misleading. The high-performing 2016 PIRLS cohort weren’t the first pupils to take part in the test since 2010. An earlier cohort took the test in 2011.
It was in the 2011 PIRLS test that English pupils took a great leap forward. The 2016 results built on the dramatic improvement between 2006 and 2011. Gibb downplays this. He continues to imply that Coalition reforms, particularly the phonics screening test, caused the high performance by English pupils in PIRLS 2016. This is incorrect.
When ministers crow about the success of English pupils in PIRLS, they should remember two things:
1 The systematic teaching of phonics was already embedded in English school before 2010. But Gibb claims his promotion of phonics* is responsible for the 2016 PIRLS success.
2 Northern Irish pupils outperformed English ones. Guidance in Northern Ireland recognises the importance of teaching phonics but doesn’t focus entirely upon it. Northern Ireland has a ‘broad and balanced approach to promote literacy’. It also trusts far more in teacher professionalism that does the Department for Education in England where ministers are too fond in pushing their pet theories.
*It should be remembered that Gibb often muddles these terms: systematic teaching of phonics; synthetic phonics; systematic synthetic phonics and just plain ‘phonics’. But neither synthetic phonics nor nonspecific phonics is helpful unless taught systematically. And synthetic phonics isn’t the only method of teaching phonics. His muddle raises concern about his taxpayer-funded promotion of one method. Gibb’s obsession has proved very profitable (and will continue to be so) for producers of synthetic phonics material and training.