There is growing concern that the high number of marks needed to pass new Year 1 phonics tests will demoralise children, and even put them off reading.
Only a third of pupils passed the pilot study, carried out in 300 schools last year. And the government has no plans to lower the threshold when it is rolled out nationally this summer, it has emerged.
The phonics screening check, as the test is officially known, will consist of 40 words and non-words that children read aloud to their teacher, and should take pupils between four and nine minutes to complete.
If the required pass mark remains as high as it was in the pilot, it is likely that the parents of around 330,000 five- and six-year-olds will be told their child has not reached the "expected standard".
Many heads are clear that the bar does not need to be so high; they point to the fact that just 15 per cent of pupils fail to reach the expected level in reading at the end of Year 2. But schools minister Nick Gibb, a long-term phonics advocate, said that higher expectations in Year 1 would help all children to reach the expected level in Year 2. The final pass mark will be sent to schools with the test materials at the beginning of June, but since the pilot results were released in December, ministers have shown no inclination to set a lower standard.
"The government recognises that ambitions for the phonics check are more challenging than the current trajectory towards reading at the end of Year 2. But we make no apology for being ambitious about securing high standards in the teaching of reading," the guidance stated.
The government was also clear that it would publish the national and local results but not individual school scores. However, it said that headteachers must tell parents how their child had performed on the test compared with the set standard.
Some heads are not happy. "A pass mark is absolutely ridiculous," Tony Draper, head of Water Hall Primary School in Milton Keynes, said. "Who in their right minds thinks about telling the parents of six-year-olds and the children themselves that they are failures? It's moronic. They are not failures, they are learners. They are at different stages of their learning journey."
Sue Palmer, a literacy expert and author of Toxic Childhood, agreed. "We've had this drive to raise standards by setting aspirational targets for 15 years," she said. "It has made not one bit of difference. Children are being crammed rather than learning and it makes reading and writing far less enjoyable. I think if two-thirds of children are failing a pilot, it suggests that the standard they have set is too high for that age group.
"Children will start Year 2, where there is no sand or water play, knowing they have to do this reading stuff which they didn't do very well in last year and have another test to do at the end of the year. It may well put them off."
But Kevin Bullock, head of Fordham Primary School in Cambridgeshire and a national leader of education, said he hoped to keep things in perspective. "The test is just an indicator of how children are progressing in phonics," he said. "Personally, I don't see the children behind in phonics at that age as failures."
Meanwhile, publishers are predicting that the phonics check will mean parents and teachers scrambling for phonics mater-ials. The government has made match-funding of up to #163;3,000 available for schools to buy approved phonics products and training. So far, around 4,000 schools have taken up this offer, but publishers are expecting a flood of orders after the test.
"If, like last year's pilot, only a third (of pupils) pass, I think there will be a lot of worry and tension and that is bound to stimulate that particular market," said Ray Barker, director of the British Educational Suppliers Association. "We expect there to be a rush."
A child working at the minimum expected standard (drawn up by phonics experts with 50 teachers) should be able to decode:
all items with simple structures containing single letters and consonant digraphs (a combination of two letters representing one sound);
most items containing frequent and consistent vowel digraphs;
all items containing a single two-consonant string with other single letters (ie, CCVC or CVCC);
most items containing a pair of two-consonant strings and a vowel (ie, CCECC);
some items containing less frequent and less consistent vowel digraphs, including split digraphs;
some items containing a single three-consonant string; and
some items containing two syllables.