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Phonics expert labels Year 1 test plans 'a waste of money'

Proposed reading tests for six-year-olds are a "horrendous" idea that will lead to a narrow curriculum and anxiety for teachers, parents and children, a leading phonics expert has warned.

The Government wants to introduce a five-minute test in which children read out up to 40 words - some real and some not - to a teacher in a one-to-one situation.

But Greg Brooks, emeritus professor at Sheffield University, said a mandatory test at the end of Year 1 is a "waste of money".

Described as a progress check, the test is designed to find out which pupils need extra support. A second test in the autumn term of Year 2 is proposed as a resit for pupils who did not meet the grade the previous year.

Professor Brooks is a long-term advocate of phonics, the teaching technique favoured by Conservative ministers. But he believes the money set aside for the reading test would be better spent on providing the resources that children need.

"What they are proposing is horrendous. It is a vast waste of money," he said. "Even though I'm an advocate for synthetic phonics, I completely disagree with this test. It will inevitably cause teaching to the test, deflecting attention away from more valuable areas of the curriculum.

"The research literature says synthetic phonics works best in a broad and rich literacy environment, and that the effect of this (test) will be that children will be able to jump through these decoding hoops but not make much progress in reading."

Professor Brooks added that his research on phonics, which was cited in the Government's white paper, has been misunderstood.

His findings showed that synthetic phonics enables children to make progress in identifying words, Professor Brooks said. But he added there was not enough evidence to show that synthetic phonics was better than any other phonics system.

He said: "It is well-established that systematic phonics works better than an unsystematic system. From the angle of theory, I think synthetic phonics ought to be superior but we need more research."

The Government is currently consulting on the detail of the Year 1 tests. Under its plan, parents would be told whether their child has met the expected standard and how that compares to the rest of the year group.

Schools would be encouraged to provide more information to parents about their child's performance, while school level results would be available through the RAISEonline website, but not published publicly, and would be used in national statistics.

The test is due to be piloted in 200 schools in the week beginning 13 June 2011.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: "It will not be possible for teachers to 'drill' children for the phonics screening check. The check will be designed to assess children's fundamental decoding skills to ensure that nobody slips through the net."

Test format

Starter for 10

- The 40-item test will include real words and non-words such as zort and koob.

- Children will be allowed about 10 seconds per word.

- The test will be administered one-to-one to all Year 1 children by the same teacher.

- It will take place during a given week, with a different paper for each day so that questions remain secure.

- A standard will be set; children's parents will be told whether their child meets that standard or not and how their performance compares to the year group as a whole.

- Children who do not meet the standard will be be given support in the final half of the summer term and will take the test again at the end of the autumn term in Year 2.

- The test will be piloted in 200 schools in June 2011.

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