Unions oppose early phonics test

25th February 2011 at 00:00
They claim proposal impugns teachers' professionalism

All of England's major teaching unions have come out officially against plans to introduce a synthetic phonics test of children's abilities to read single words at the end of Year 1.

In their responses to the policy, the NAHT, NASUWT, the NUT, the ATL and Voice said they were opposed to the plans because they undermined teachers' professionalism.

The proposed 10-minute test will consist of 40 items, made up of words and non-words. Non-words are used to ensure children are reading rather than memorising (see box).

Three hundred schools will take part in the pound;250,000 pilot this summer and the Westminster Government plans a national roll-out in 2012. Last year, 15 per cent of pupils did not reach the expected level 2 in reading at the end of Year 2 and Ministers say the test is needed to confirm whether children have learnt phonics to an appropriate standard.

The unions are concerned that the Government believes the "pervasive myth" that synthetic phonics is not already used in schools. They say that being able to read requires more than just phonic knowledge and a test that pressurises teachers to focus on phonics could backfire.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said: "(It) is the equivalent of telling surgeons they can use only a scalpel to perform an operation. They wouldn't dream of interfering with a surgeon's practice. Why should teachers' professionalism and judgment merit less respect?"

An NASUWT survey of 2,000 members found that two thirds of teachers were opposed to the test.

The NUT said that the proposals to retest children who fail could cause them to think they are "no good" at reading - especially as they will only be given a limited number of attempts at each word.

The ATL said: "The trial must be independently evaluated, considering a range of factors beyond the feasibility of the test."

NAHT general secretary Russell Hobby said: "Our members are deeply suspicious of the phonics screen. They wonder what the data will be used for. They fear that it will encourage segregation and discriminate against some pupils. They think it raises phonics to an unjustified pinnacle of orthodoxy."

The Government had about 1,000 responses to the consultation, which closed last week.

How the pilot study will work

The synthetic phonics test will consist of 40 items and take about 10 minutes to complete.

It will include real words and non-words such as "zort" and "koob". To prevent children being confused when faced with non-words, it is proposed that teachers hold up pictures of an imaginary creature (pictured) and explain the word is its name.

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.

Children who do not meet the standard will 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 300 schools in England to around 10,000 pupils in June 2011.

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