Front page Times Educational Supplement today we find an interesting piece by Helen Ward entitled: “Phonics knocked off it’s perch by EYFS review”. in which Helen appears to be highlighting how the findings of the government-sponsored review panel appear to directly contradict coalition government policy on the reading test for five and six year olds. I’m saying ‘coalition government’ policy here – but actually the reading test is Conservative Policy and as far as I’m aware was never backed by the Liberal Democrats.
So we have a political controversy and I’ll say again what I’ve said before: The futures of young children are in danger of being sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.
Meanwhile Early Day Motion 1532 to rethink the Phonics Test has been signed by prominent Lib Dem, Labour and Green M.P’s but the Conservatives are noticeably absent from the list. So the phonics test for five and six year olds has been criticised by Phonics experts (such as Prof. Greg Brooks who signed the petition to Stop School League Tables for five year olds) – criticised by practitioners (see the international petition to Say No to the Phonics Test) and criticised by the government commissioned EYFS review panel. Yet the government is still going ahead with this. Orwellian, isn’t it?
I read a piece on the Educational Maintenance Allowance written by Aaron Porter formerly of the NUS in the Guardian yesterday. He seemed to be saying that Michael Gove and the coalition government either don’t know their own policies very well, don’t know what they are doing or that they are quite simply incompetent. I tend to agree.
The major ideological objective behind many of these policies is to be blunt: to make people pay. To make people pay for their schooling by allowing private companies to take over academies and elements of schooling, to make schools pay – and – because the policy is fundamentally educationally unsound – they are making our five and six year olds pay too.
There is another aspect of this (and forgive me for being so wordy readers) – which is the question of the private companies which are behind the organisation and creation of the phonics testing. The week before last the Times Educational Supplement ran several articles (for and against arguments) on the reading and phonics test for five and six year olds (although they were still referring to it as a test for six year olds). One of the comment pieces which supported the test was written by several authors some of whom were described as literacy trainers. I was prompted to respond to this with a readers letter which remained unpublished. Here it is:
“Very pleased to see more in depth coverage of the reading/phonics test this week. There were several simple points that I would like to highlight though.
Firstly can we please stop referring to the test as a “test for six year olds”? A good number of summer-borns are set to be tested – and if our school is included in the pilot scheme – this would include my own five year old daughter. So it would be factually correct to call it a “test for five and six year olds”. Differentiating brings us closer to understanding how developmentally different children in Year One classes actually are.
Secondly - I was interested to read the piece by Ruth Miskin and Jenny Chew who are referred to as ‘literacy’ trainers. Amongst other issues raised in this piece we are reassuringly told “children need not be fazed by the requirements of the screening check”. Does that mean that parents need likewise not be fazed by the £250,000 that the pilot scheme will cost? Or the fact that the government is refusing to tell us how much the scheme as a whole will cost, for reasons of commercial confidentiality as described in the Freedom of Information Act Query I submitted recently? Does that mean we need not be fazed by the fact that at least one of the authors of the article in question is not simply a ‘literacy’ trainer – but in addition appears to run a commercial enterprise, heavily marketing phonics materials and training packages across the country? Does that mean we don’t have to ask or answer questions about which companies are contracted to deliver these programmes and how? Are we likewise not to be fazed by cuts in our libraries, arts and public services – which are directly relevant to children’s ability to access books and communicate?
Thirdly - I’m very glad to see the debate in the TES on the reading test – but most parents don’t read this paper – it (inevitably?) mainly addresses an elite audience. Your average parent at the school gate is not aware of the controversies surrounding the reading/phonics test. And even if they were – most of us do not believe we could change anything about it anyway. Even the most assertive parent – tends to crumble (in despair?) when faced with the many permutations of the adage that ‘teacher knows best’ in our society. Parents and their children continue to be excluded from a truly democratic discussion on education. They are disenfranchised and disempowered by the reading test plan – as they have been disempowered by the many other inappropriate measures foisted upon them in recent years.
Frances Laing (editor of the international petition “Stop School League Tables for Five Year Olds”, parent, trained teacher, writer, blogger and journalist).
One last note on this: I had requested our own M.P. Stephen Mosley to sign the EDM to rethink the reading/phonics test for five and six year olds. In response Stephen referred to some research that allegedly backed up the validity of the test. I sent off an email this week to ask what the research resources are that he is referring to. I shall look forward to receiving a response and inviting readers to comment. Stephen writes in his letter:
“I would like to assure you that the education Minister Nick Gibb, M.P. has undertaken a great deal of reseach in this area and that the Government’s proposals are supported by high quality research evidence from across the world, from Scotland and Australia to the National Reading Panel in the United States. The inclusion of non-words in the test would mean that pupils would have to de-code words and ensure that they have not just memorised individual words”.
Somehow I’m not reassured by this but after all what do I and my partner know about the education of five and six year olds (I’m only the mother of one of them – and my partner is only the one who goes to the library every week with her and reads the stories every night…
A note of heavy sarcasm creeping in there. At the risk of banging on boringly about this and in the event that I don’t receive a response from Stephen Moseley M.P about the research sources the government is using to back up their arguments about the reading test – can anyone else out there help me out in naming these research sources? Ta.
Made a start with researching the research sources, here is the U.S. source which interestingly enough, advocates a ‘combination of methods’ to develop reading skills, and not just one - this includes comprehension and listening to a child read. Question: isn’t that what schools are already doing? So why spent a quarter of a million pounds on a pilot scheme and several million more on rolling out an entirely new programme?
Here is what the U.S. National Reading Panel had to say about one study they conducted (for the rest follow the link above):
“The panel also concluded that guided oral reading is important for developing reading fluency-the ability to read with efficiency and ease. In guided oral reading, students read out loud, to either a parent, teacher or other student, who corrects their mistakes and provides them with other feedback. Specifically, guided oral reading helped students across a wide range of grade levels to learn to recognize new words, helped them to read accurately and easily, and helped them to comprehend what they read.
By contrast, the panel was unable to determine from the research whether reading silently to oneself helped to improve reading fluency. Although it makes sense that silent reading would lead to improvements in fluency, and the panel members did not discourage the practice, sufficient research to conclusively prove this assumption has not been conducted. Literally hundreds of studies have shown that the best readers read silently to themselves more frequently than do poor readers, the panel members wrote. However, these studies cannot distinguish whether independent silent reading improves reading skills or that good readers simply prefer to read silently to themselves more than do poor readers. The panel recommended that if silent reading is used as a classroom technique, intended to develop reading skills and fluency, it should be done in combination with other types of reading instruction, such as guided oral reading”. (From U.S. Reading Panel Study).