Hopes pinned on phonics after drop in level 3 awards

5th September 2008 at 01:00
But head cautions against putting too much pressure on youngsters

The proportion of seven-year-olds awarded higher grades in reading, writing and maths key stage 1 tests dropped significantly this year.

Pupils are expected to reach level 2 by the time of doing these tests, and this is largely being achieved, with 84 per cent of pupils reaching the mark in reading, 80 per cent in writing, and 90 per cent in maths - the same as last year.

However the proportion of those getting to level 3 has fallen in all three subjects. In reading, 25 per cent of pupils reached level 3 compared to 27 per cent in 2005. In writing, 12 per cent have reached this level compared to 15 per cent in 2005, and in maths, 21 per cent compared to 23 per cent in 2005.

At level 2, pupils are able to write in sentences, with simple words spelt correctly, and use appropriate and interesting vocabulary. At level 3, their writing is "organised, imaginative and clear", with grammar usually correct and spelling usually accurate.

Michael Gove, the Conservative shadow education secretary, said the drop at the higher level mirrored the KS2 results earlier in the summer, which also showed that the number of pupils reaching higher levels had dropped - possibly because there has been less focus on stretching the brightest.

The Government has recently announced a raft of initiatives aimed at KS1 and reception. These include more focus on phonics and one-to-one tuition for those struggling under its Every Child a Reader, Every Child Counts and Every Child a Writer schemes.

Most controversially, the new Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum became law on Monday. One Early Years goal of being able to write simple words by the age of five is already under review after a campaign from Open Eye, a pressure group which includes teachers, academics and authors.

But Barbara Capstick, head of Bedgrove Infant School in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, said she was impressed by the Government's overall strategy. "The phonics guidance, Letters and Sounds, is the first government scheme we have followed," she said.

"These programmes always take two years to have an effect, so we will be looking for that next year. It has given the children so much confidence."

Mrs Capstick added that there were a host of reasons why fewer KS1 pupils were reaching level 3.

"The problem is, when we concentrate on one particular area, the other areas will not increase. It is about trying to find a balance and also understanding that these children are only six and seven. At that stage their maturity can be dependent on what input they have at home, whether they have gone to nursery and even whether they have a summer birthday. We should be careful not to put pressure on children at a very early stage."

This year's KS1 results also showed that 87 per cent of pupils reached the expected level 2 in speaking and listening and 89 per cent in science.

More girls than boys reached the expected level in all subjects, but more boys than girls reached level 3 in maths and sciences.


Phonics is the method of teaching children to link sounds with letters or groups of letters.

It has been a statutory part of the national curriculum since it was introduced in 1989, but in the past few years the focus on the phonics system has intensified.

In April 2005, the House of Commons education and skills select committee recommended a government review into reading. Should it be taught by introducing phonics `first, fast and only', or could children learn to read through a mixture of phonics and other methods, such as looking at context?

The Conservatives ramped up the pressure by making the teaching of phonics an election pledge in 2005.

When Labour won that election, Ruth Kelly, then education secretary, announced a review into reading headed by Jim Rose, former primary chief inspector.

In March 2006, the Rose Review recommended that phonics be taught in discrete lessons by the age of five. In the summer of 2007, Letters and Sounds - the Government's own phonic guidance - was distributed free to all schools.

Then in September 2007, the new style of phonics teaching became statutory.

By March of this year, Sir Jim (he was knighted in June 2007) estimated that around three quarters of schools were implementing phonics in line with his review. But publishers complained that sales of phonics schemes had fallen.

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