What is the point of the phonics screening check?

photo of a boy reading book
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What is the point of the Phonics Screening check?

THE introduction of the Phonics Screening Check (PSC) in 2012 was introduced as a ‘light-touch screening to identify pupils in need of additional support in the classroom’. In reality, it ranks highly in the accountability stakes and brings with it the expectation of an ever increasing pass rate, regardless of the needs of each cohort.  

The publication, in December 2017, of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS 2016)  saw England move from 10th (in 2011) to 8th place (in 2016). This led schools minister, Nick Gibb, to praise the government, linking the improvement in the ratings directly to their mandatory policy on synthetic phonics as the only method of teaching reading. He stated that “Today’s results put the success of our increased emphasis on phonics and continued focus on raising education standards on a global scale.  Our rise through the global rankings is even more commendable because it has been driven by an increase in the number of low-performing pupils reading well.” 

He omitted to mention the fact however, that England still lagged behind the ratings of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, both of whom have different literacy policies. 

Is it as good as it seems? 

In June 2015, the final report from the Evaluation of the Phonics Screening Check (2012-2015) was published.  This was undertaken by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), and was commissioned by the DfE.   It found that, although there was an improvement in attainment in the PSC, over the 3 years, there was no evidence that the test impacted on wider literacy performance or progress.

Over two thirds of literacy co-ordinators felt the check didn’t provide them with any information they hadn’t already gleaned from their own assessments and concerns were raised by some teachers, about the teaching of pseudo words and having to ‘teach to the test.’

The government however appeared to take no notice of these findings and pressures on schools increased.  The report stated that  ‘…accountability has moved down the school, with Reception teachers more mindful of their role in phonics teaching since the introduction of the check in Year 1; one school also referred to an increased focus on phase 1 phonics in Nursery.’   Unfortunately, I have very recently read posts, on early years Facebook forums, from nursery practitioners stating that they now teach phase 2 phonics, almost from the beginning of the year. 

It appears the government doesn’t want to engage in a discussion about the relative merits of the phonics screening check as, during the Primary Assessment Consultation in 2017, there were no questions relating to the impact or future of the PSC, instead there was just a reference to it remaining a statutory assessment.  

In addition, so pleased were they with the ever increasing pass rate, the phonics screening check was being advocated abroad, as the way forward in improving literacy.  Following this Margaret M Clark OBE, a visiting professor at Newman University and Emeritus Professor at the University of Birmingham, decided to create an independent survey of the PSC, and sought views from head teachers, teachers and parents, via an anonymous survey on Survey Monkey.  The Phonics Screening Check 2012- 2017: An Independent Enquiry into the views of Head Teachers, Teachers and Parents

She states in the report,  “I was aware that the lack of evidence of the views of teachers might lead politicians to assume they fully subscribed to the policy and to the statutory check. However, I was also conscious that many teachers were reluctant, even fearful, to speak out in opposition to the policy, even to express their concerns about the effects, intended and unintended, of this “high stakes” assessment of children at six-years-of-age, not only on those who failed, but even on children who passed.”

What do schools say?

Responses were garnered from 180 Head Teachers, 1,108 teachers and 295 parents. They were asked a number of questions in relation to their experience of the implementation and impact of the screening at school, at home and on the children taking the test.

The report revealed the many concerns held by schools. Concerns about the check itself and the effect it is having on teaching, pupils and the wider literacy curriculum.  It found that:

  •  89% of head teachers and 94% of teachers felt that the PSC doesn’t provide any additional information than that already gathered from schools’ own assessments 
  • 80% of teachers and head teachers felt that pseudo words were not useful. Many responses reported pseudo words causing confusion as children tried to make sense of them e.g. misreading strom for storm. This was also backed up by parents views. 
  • 64% of headteachers and 74% of teachers felt it wasn’t useful to re-test those who failed the test in Year 1
  • Only 16% of head teachers and 12% of teachers thought that the PSC should remain statutory.
  • Only 6% of headteachers and  10% of teachers agreed with government policy that synthetic phonics is the only way to teach reading in England. There was also a difference in views held, dependent of length of service, with more experienced teachers being more likely to disagree with the PSC remaining statutory.   The report states that “Many recently qualified teachers in England may not have been alerted to the controversial nature of some of the evidence cited by the government as Teacher Education programmes may be dominated by a focus on synthetic phonics to enable them to meet Ofsted requirements.”

 Many teachers also stated that:

  • it had negatively affected their teaching practice. 
  • they had concerns about children’s stress levels during the implementation of the PSC – nearly 63% said they had observed some children being affected

Many teachers were vocal in their dislike of test.   ‘Better readers try to turn alien words into similar words that they know are real. To prevent this from happening, children have to be ‘trained’ in how the test works. This time would be better spent teaching them actual reading skills.’  

Parents views

Responses from parents were also negative, in fact there were only two that were positive, with the general consensus being:

 ‘…it had a negative impact [on] reading for enjoyment’.

‘it made her reading slow and stilted for a while because she was told to sound everything out. She did not need to.’

The majority of parents surveyed weren’t in favour of the PSC continuing for all children.  60% said that their children could already read and write words prior to the implementation of the PSC and some parents felt that the use of pseudo words were confusing.

Has the PSC impacted on the wider literacy curriculum?

Responses from parents and teachers indicated that too much time is spent teaching children to read words that make no sense (and serve no purpose other than to pass a test).  This, as a result, is limiting time for teaching the wider set of skills needed for children to become well-rounded, confident readers.  

As one teacher commented, ‘We teach to the test. It’s depressing and goes against everything most teachers want to deliver. Reading should be for pleasure, for learning and for life. Subjecting 5-year olds to ‘failure’ at reading is just crazy. All any good teacher needs to know is where their children are showing gaps in knowledge or understanding of phonics. Teaching children phonics every day for a year and listening to children read gives teachers far more information than this check could ever produce.’

The PSC is purely an indication of a child’s ability to decode single words. It does not assess their reading ability or their understanding of what is being read.  The very fact that there is no transfer of skills across to the wider literacy curriculum just makes a mockery of the governments assertion that synthetic phonics is the only way to teach reading.  Were this check to have any real benefit on raising standards then surely the impact would be felt across the board? 

Education Secretary Damien Hinds, spoke recently about the number of children starting school unable to ‘communicate in full sentences’. He went on to say that ‘This matters, because when you’re behind from the start you rarely catch up. Your peers don’t wait, the gap just widens. This has a huge impact on social mobility.”   However, unless the PSC is discontinued, the gap is likely to widen even more as the teaching of literacy is under threat, as explained by one teacher who wrote,  ‘Because we have to concentrate so much on ‘phonics’, reading for meaning, language development, vocabulary all suffer.’   

In addition, the pressure placed on schools to increase the yearly pass rate, means that many nursery teachers are being told to introduce developmentally inappropriate practices earlier and earlier each year.  58% of Nursery teachers surveyed, even grouped children by ability despite there being no evidence that this improves practice.

Implications for the future  

So far the government seem committed to continuing with the PSC and synthetic phonics as the only method of teaching reading.  In fact, the report reveals,  so committed were they to this endeavour that they even considered extending the check into year 3, for children who failed the test in year 2!  Fortunately, Nick Gibb said this will not be implemented but the reasons why are unclear, as the report (of a pilot in 300 schools by NFER) was never published. 

Given the amount of information surrounding the implementation and impact of the PSC since it’s conception,  Clark (and Glazzard) have advised that government policy should be seriously reconsidered and suggested the following (p 44-45):

  • either discontinuing the PSC or making it voluntary and more of a formative assessment tool 
  • the removal of pseudo words
  • reconsidering using the percentage pass mark as a measure of school improvement
  • implementing a range of strategies for the teaching of reading, rather than rely on just one approach in schools and as referenced in the teachers standards
  • ensuring that all stakeholders are involved in discussions about the future of the PSC and the use of synthetic phonics as the only method of teaching children to read

I have witnessed the amount of time spent teaching children to decode pseudo words and experienced the frustration and futility felt by teachers doing this. I have seen children, who are independent readers and read for pleasure,  being given discrete lessons in decoding nonsense words as they try to make sense of them and so get them wrong.

Surely a better way to assess reading is through reading books?   This will provide not only evidence for children’s ability to decode but more importantly, provide information on their level of comprehension and demonstrate their abilities to infer, deduce and predict.  Isn’t this what  ‘the simple view of reading’ (The Rose Report 2006) was advocating?

We can only hope that the government stops being so intransigent and listens to the views of head teachers, teachers and parents, in order to ensure that children are taught to read effectively but more importantly develop a love of reading that will continue throughout their lives. 





































Under Pressure

Under Pressure

I came across this post from a worried mum on Mumsnet recently.  She believed that her child (5.2 years old) was the least able writer in her class and wanted advice as to what to do about it?

mumsnet writing post

Thankfully teachers, along with other parents who responded, put the mum at ease and explained that her child was at the expected level of development, for writing, at the end of reception. Fortunately the responses to the post were all very supportive and the mum was reassured.

To my mind, this post highlights how government policy is increasingly affecting the stress levels of us all – teachers, parents and children.   Early years practitioners in schools are under pressure, through targets and performance related pay, to ensure that attainment rises year on year, despite the needs of differing cohorts, funding and staffing issues.   In some schools this pressure reduces the time spent learning through play and increases the likelihood of a formalised curriculum where reading, writing and maths take precedence over everything else.  With the reception baseline assessment now looming in the distance, concerns are being raised that this pressure will be filtered down to nursery practitioners and children.

Unfortunately, once testing measures are put in place in any year group, the pressure to achieve better scores starts earlier and earlier – the year one, Phonics Screening Check is a good example of this. What was originally intended as a light touch assessment has instead taken us down the same high stakes assessment path as the SATs.

The review of the phonics screening check in 2015 discussed some of the issues facing schools, such as the top-down pressure felt by teachers. It stated that  ‘…accountability has moved down the school, with Reception teachers more mindful of their role in phonics teaching since the introduction of the check in Year 1; one school also referred to an increased focus on phase 1 phonics in Nursery.’

It appears that there were no lessons learnt from this as another, more recent report on the phonics screening check (Newman University 2012-2017) shines a light on just how purposeless the screening is.   180 headteachers, 1,108 teachers and approximately 300 parents were interviewed and their responses analysed.  Preliminary findings have shown that, despite all the preparation and focus on the check, it provides schools with no additional information other than that already gleaned from their own assessments, has no bearing on attainment or progress on the wider literacy curriculum, has increased anxiety levels in children taking the test and has negatively affected teaching and learning, as time is spent training children to decode pseudo (nonsense) words!

The current debate around the introduction of baseline assessment in reception could lead to pressure being brought to bear by headteachers (belonging to the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL),  as they are in favour of the test, whilst teachers are not.

During her defence of the baseline assessment, ASCL’s interim director of policy, Julie McCulloch said: “…. we therefore support a light-touch assessment near the beginning of Reception which will provide an earlier starting point for measuring progress.”  This is exactly how the phonics screening test was introduced, several years ago, and look where we are with it now!

It doesn’t stop there however, as there is yet another new test  being piloted in 2018, this one aimed at 5 year olds! How much more pressure can the government bring to bear on such young children and for what purpose?  Particularly given the fact that the tests wont tell teachers any more than they already know about the children they teach!

It was heartening to read A Baseline Without Basis  particularly as the panel of experts agreed with the consensus of those within the early years sector, finding it not fit for purpose and inherently unreliable. The report stated that  ‘the proposed baseline assessment will not lead to accurate comparisons being made between schools, as policymakers assume. Perhaps most importantly, they will not work in the best interests of children and their parents.’ 

The introduction of yet more tests just increases the pressure on school leadership to show progress and may lead to some schools ensuring their baseline is low.   After all, it is not unheard of for heads to succumb to pressure and doctor their KS2 data –  I should know as this happened at my granddaughters school!

The following comment, from the Mumsnet discussion, caught my eye.

My youngest is 5 years and 2 months….  He can write his name and ‘mum’, that’s it. I’m an English teacher. I’m not bothered in the slightest. Your daughter’s writing looks perfectly acceptable.

This was written by an English teacher, in Scotland, whose child is due to start P1 shortly, which is equivalent to a reception class in England.  This parent/teacher recognises that there are many more important things than being able to write a sentence at just turned 5 years old.

We need to hold onto this and remember that in many countries around the world children start school later, attain better but more importantly have better mental health and wellbeing than our children, as they are allowed to learn in the way that children have learnt for thousands of year, through play.

The government would do well to look carefully at the findings of the recent reports and really listen to early years practitioners, experts and academics in order for policy to be underpinned by child development and good early years practice.  The estimated £10 million spent on the reception baseline assessment could then be re-invested and put  into early years funding, training, recruitment and retention of early years staff.