Editorial: Phonically challenged

11th December 1998 at 00:00
Though OFSTED managed to turn a bit of good news about literacy into a funk about phonics, this week's welcome message - from a National Foundation for Educational Research evaluation of the National Literacy Project - is that children in the 250 pilot schools made significant progress. Adding 26 to 30 months on average to the reading ages of 21, 000 children over the 18 months between tests is something to celebrate - especially when it is remembered that lower-achieving schools predominated in the project.

No doubt there is room to improve further on the success of the pilot. The Office for Standards in Education's own evaluation of the project highlights several crucial elements schools and local authorities need to get right. Not the least of these involve better leadership at school level and in the support provided by local authorities. Some schools in the project clearly made smaller gains than others, and it is important to understand why.

But in its own inimitable way, OFSTED seems to have converted its own finding that 84 per cent of pilot literacy hours were satisfactory or better into a national scandal about the lack of phonics teaching: a shortcoming which, at the launch of the report, required the presence of the Prime Minister himself to deprecate.

No phonics or teaching of the rules of spelling is evident, it was alleged, in half the literacy hours currently being inspected. But there is no sign of this finding in OFSTED's report, which evaluated classroom practice five terms after the start of the project. It simply suggests that of the 16 per cent of literacy hours not rated "satisfactory" by inspectors, the most significant weakness of those at key stage 1 was in phonics.

No evidence is offered for the Chief Inspector's assertion that: "It is very, very clear that the schools making the best progress are those where phonics is being taught in the most systematic, structured way possible."

Nor is there any substantiation of the report's claim that there are gaps in teachers' understanding of phonics - though it is clearly a matter of great importance if true. For one of the questions it raises is: how can such a fundamental weakness have escaped OFSTED's inspectors for so long, and yet be so urgent as to require local authorities to devise a remedy by next month?

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