Most teachers oppose 'pointless' autumn phonics check

And two in five teachers believe that the catch-up phonics test adds to pupil stress, survey shows

Amy Gibbons

Coronavirus and schools: Many teachers are opposed to the catch-up autumn phonics check, a survey shows

Nearly three in four teachers are against this term's catch-up phonics check, with some voicing concerns that preparing for the test could be "delaying" pupils' learning, new research suggests.

More than two in five Year 2 teachers (43 per cent) believe the controversial autumn phonics check has caused pupils additional anxiety, while 82 per cent say it has added to their own stress levels, according to a report from the UCL Institute of Education.

And 68 per cent of teachers say delivering the autumn test has "reduced the time spent on other literacy activities", with some suggesting there has been a focus on fluent readers "relearning to segment words".


Background: Pupils to catch up on phonics test 'in autumn term'

Viewpoint: 'I urge schools to refuse to do the phonics test'

Phonics: 13 things every teacher should know


The findings raise the possibility that conducting the autumn check "may be detrimental to some children's reading development", but the issue requires further investigation, the report finds.

Schools were told to hold a past version of the phonics check for Year 2 children in the autumn term following the cancellation of assessments in the summer. In a normal year, children would sit the test at the end of Year 1.

The NAHT school leaders' union called for the catch-up tests to be scrapped, arguing that they carried a "completely unnecessary bureaucratic burden" with "zero academic value". But the Department for Education would not budge on the plans.

Coronavirus: Catch-up phonics check 'unnecessary'

Alice Bradbury, from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy (0-11 Years), based at the UCL Institute of Education, surveyed over 1,200 teachers and spoke separately with headteachers to gather views on the autumn check.

She found that the test was described by teachers as "pointless", "unnecessary" and "irrelevant".

Just one in four teachers (25 per cent) believed it provided any useful information on how well children could read, and only 13 per cent thought it had a positive impact on their teaching.

Overall, 72 per cent were against the autumn test, 12 per cent were "not sure", and 16 per cent were in favour.

More than a third (37 per cent) of teachers agreed that the autumn test had helped children to catch up with their phonics.

The report says: "Positive comments about using the check in Year 2 include that it has helped to identify gaps in learning and to highlight children who need additional support."

But 68 per cent of teachers said running the autumn test had "reduced the time spent on other literacy activities", with some referencing "increases in interventions for phonics, and delays to moving on to spelling strategies usually taught this term".

One teacher said there had been "too much time spent on learning phonics and phonemes in a way that has little relevance to context".

"Time is taken away from real learning in order to develop technical skills which have little practical use," they said.

The report adds: "This concern raised by a small number of respondents about having to adapt the curriculum requires further investigation.

"In the case of fluent readers, the need to return to phonic decoding for the purposes of the test, rather than have teaching better matched to their developmental level in reading, would be a step backwards."

The report adds that the teaching of "pseudo-words" in Year 2 was highlighted as a "new practice linked to the test".

"When asked specifically about fluent readers in the survey, many Year 2 teachers responded that they were approaching the test with them in the same way as other children.  However, some comments suggested there was a focus on relearning to segment words and use phonics rather than attempting to read the word in the context of sentences and whole texts," the report says.

"This focus – described by one respondent as 'delaying the children's learning' – was seen as problematic, given the lack of useful information provided by the PSC [phonics screening check].

"The data from this research raises the possibility that conducting the PSC in autumn 2020 may be detrimental to some children's reading development. However, this issue requires further investigation."

Heads also raised concerns about the logistics of administering the tests with strict Covid regulations in place, and with staff absent due to self-isolation.

One said: "Logistically, how can I have someone out of the classroom assessing phonics when I'm already seven people down?"

Dr Bradbury said: "These are the first [tests] to be conducted since the pandemic began and the government should now take into account the experiences of schools and pupils.

"Teachers are clear that they do not need the tests to establish who is struggling and any tests add extra pressure at a difficult time. What's more, comparisons between schools will be unfair, given the different experiences of schools."

Mary Bousted, joint-general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said the research "strengthens the message that educators have been sending to government since the start of this school year".

"Bringing back statutory assessment in the middle of the pandemic damages rather than supports children's learning," she said. 

"The government is addicted to testing and can't kick the habit, no matter what its consequences.

"We need [education secretary] Gavin Williamson to show some empathy with pupils and some understanding of what is most important, right now, in the work of schools. He should learn the lessons of this unnecessary test he has just put pupils through, and cancel all statutory assessment, including Sats, in 2021."

A spokesperson for the campaign More Than A Score said: "The government has shown little empathy for six- and seven-year-olds who are having to sit a test in nonsense words instead of being supported and encouraged to love reading.

"Like all standardised tests carried out during a pandemic, the phonics check fails to provide any useful information, doesn't help to bridge learning gaps and places an additional burden on both teachers and pupils. These formal tests should be cancelled in this school year."

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "Primary assessments are a central part of the approach to raising standards. Our assessment reforms are helping to ensure children leave primary school with a secure grasp of the fundamentals of reading, writing and mathematics. As part of a broad and balanced curriculum, this helps lay the foundations for success at secondary school and beyond.

"We trust teachers to administer these tests in an appropriate way and they should not be a source of stress for children. The tests enable teachers to track pupils' progress, helping to make sure they stay on track to fulfil their potential throughout school."

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Amy Gibbons

Amy Gibbons

Amy Gibbons is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @tweetsbyames

Latest stories

Covid testing in schools. What do we know?

Coronavirus and schools: LIVE 26/1

A one-stop shop for teachers who want to know what impact the ongoing pandemic will have on their working lives
Tes Reporter 26 Jan 2021