The big news last week was the announcement of the phonics-check thresholds. Well, I say big news, it was news. Well, OK, perhaps not really news, but it was announced. And no doubt, after a big drum roll and to significant applause, the threshold for the expected standard was announced to be… exactly the same as for the past five years!
A cynic might suspect that the ever-constant 32 is as much about appearances as it is about attainment. For the last few years, we’ve seen increasing numbers of pupils scoring above the vital threshold, and an evening out of the pattern of results, but there is still no denying that there is a marked peak at just the right place.
If the threshold had fallen to 31 this year, it would hardly have mattered a jot; the overall proportion passing would have crept up by less than 1 per cent. A shift in the opposite direction, on the other hand, could have looked disastrous. Instead of a steady increase year on year, we’d have seen a fall of more than 3 per cent. That same cynic might have thought it impossible to stomach.
The chances are that the threshold stays the same because it’s a relatively straightforward check and therefore relatively easy to maintain a consistent approach over a period of years. The same cannot be said for the complexities of the statutory tests at the end of key stages 1 and 2.
A more positive reading of the results suggests that teachers are not just doing the bare minimum to get children over the pass-mark threshold. Since the introduction of the tests, the biggest increases have been in the number of children reaching the scores in the mid and high 30s, comfortably above the pass mark. So perhaps the check is serving its purpose? But one can’t help but wonder if there might have been a better way.
Reaching the standard
Now that we have the phonics check, it’s clear that we have a greater number of pupils reaching the standard expected of them in phonics. I’m pleased about that, and fully recognise the weight of evidence that shows us that phonics should be the lynchpin of our reading work in KS1. What I do wonder is whether the test has created a shift in thinking, or just a shift in practice. What would happen if the test were ditched tomorrow? How many schools would shift away from the intensive phonics work that has been successful in this respect to more varied methods?
The problem with the strong-arm approach of using national testing to change teacher behaviour is that it becomes a cage rather than a springboard. Instead of providing the CPD that might have helped teachers to better understand the role of phonics, and the importance of its prioritisation in teaching, it has simply served to make some teachers feel like they teach phonics to tick a box. It is clear from the ongoing phonics debates that occur in schools, forums and on social media, that not all teachers have changed their views; they simply play along with the game.
As the Department for Education starts on the path for launching another “check”, in the form of the Year 4 multiplication check, perhaps somebody there could put some thought into how teachers become better-informed professionals about the role of multiplication tables, rather than just expecting a test to change their views.
I agree that multiplication tables and phonics should absolutely have superior status in our curriculum, but not everyone is persuaded of that yet. Simply introducing a test won’t change hearts and minds. Have we not learned that lesson?
Michael Tidd is headteacher at Medmerry Primary School in West Sussex. He tweets as @MichaelT1979