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England: The Department for Education pulls the plug on the Year 3 phonics screening check after the pilot in 300 schools

The DfE-commissioned report of the pilot for Year 3s retaking the Year 1 phonics screening check has now been published. I found it dismaying that such a huge percentage of Year 3 children, after four years of systematic synthetic phonics provision (in theory), still did not reach or exceed the 32 out of 40 benchmark for reading/decoding 20 real words and 20 pseudo-words correctly or plausibly. What has gone wrong with the teaching?

Key findings

  • Of the 1,625 year 3 pupils who took part in the year 3 Phonics Screening Check pilot, 51% met the expected standard.
  • 59% of pupils who took part in the pilot with a first language other than English met the expected standard.
  • 39% of pupils with special educational needs support or statement met the expected standard, compared with 65% of pupils with no special educational needs.

Here are the national Year 1 phonics check and literacy results from 2016:

1. Phonics results (Tables 1 and 7)

81% of pupils met the expected standard of phonic decoding at the end of year 1. An increase of 23 percentage points since the introduction of the assessment in 2012. The proportion of year 1 pupils achieving the phonics standard has increased year on year since 2012.

The percentage of pupils meeting the expected standard by the end of year 2 has risen to 91% in 2016 continuing the steady increase from the 85% of pupils achieving the standard when the year 2 assessment was introduced in 2013.

School level figures are not published for phonics, but 1138 schools have at least 95% of the pupils achieving the phonics standard in year 1 in 2016 compared with 753 schools in 2015 and 611 in 2014.

Why do I suggest that something has indeed ‘gone wrong with the teaching’?

Why don’t I assume (as no doubt many people will) that the Year 3 pilot results are a consequence of ‘within-child’ difficulties?

Firstly, because in 2016, teachers in 1138 schools managed to teach 95% to 100% of their Year 1 children how to read and decode words successfully. If they can do this, so can other schools.

Secondly, because I know that teachers are still being mistrained and consequently they provide weak or flawed reading instruction practices.

Thirdly, I have evidenced on previous blog posts that some literacy and intervention organisations persist with flawed guidance and training in reading and spelling instruction.

It is not hard to suggest, therefore, that the weakest and slowest-to-learn children are highly likely to be receiving reading instruction that is less than optimum. The very fact they are still identified as needing basic phonics teaching only to the level of passing the Year 1 phonics screening check proves the case. Why are these Year 3 children still in such need after phonics provision in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 (unless they are new to the English language)?

Shockingly, I have also shown that the prevailing belief that ‘some children need something different from phonics’ also persists amongst the teaching profession. I have taken the Education Endowment Foundation to task regarding the promotion of this idea. Now, Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT heads’ union has said in response to the government’s withdrawal of the retake scheme, “The government is often attracted to retakes and resits, when, in fact, a different approach to teaching is needed“.

I have now written to Russell Hobby to ask him exactly what ‘different approach to teaching‘ he would recommend in the case of Year 3 children who have still failed to reach or exceed the benchmark for the Year 1 phonics screening check. What does he mean?

Surely, Russell Hobby, and the Department for Education and Ofsted, and the Education Endowment Foundation, should be thoroughly investigating the reading instruction provision in England’s primary schools in great depth and detail, plus investigating the nature and quality of the intervention the children are receiving in these schools.

Far from the government closing down this Year 3 retake scheme, the results should have triggered clanging alarm bells and launched an official review of the state of reading instruction in its entirety – whether mainstream or intervention.

I have written about this in more depth via the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction forum.

Please note that my comments are not at all about blaming the teachers – but I am questioning the teaching. I have described how teachers continue to get mixed messages about reading and spelling instruction from different sources. My role (trainer/consultant/programme author) means that I’m invited to support some schools in providing foundational literacy. The same teachers when equipped with the right kind of guidance and a fit-for-purpose body of work for teaching and learning make remarkable differences in short periods of time to children’s learning. Teachers, learners and parents/carers just need the right kind of information and practical help to make a big difference.