'A waste of time': heads on phonics test

Many say it revealed little that teachers did not already know

Tes Editorial

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More than 550,000 children aged 5-6 were the first to take the government's contentious phonics screening test this week. Their headteachers' response to the dubious honour was, unsurprisingly, that the exercise was little more than a waste of time and money.

Pupils in every corner of England were asked to read a list of 40 words (half of which were non-words such as "bim"), accompanied by pictures, to a qualified professional - in most cases their teacher.

The latter regulation was one of few that gained support in the consultation process, but while it reduced stress for pupils, it meant many class teachers were unable to teach for a day, with little reward other than the confirmation of what they already knew about their pupils.

The test was introduced by the coalition government to confirm that Year 1 pupils had learned phonic decoding - the links between sounds and letters - to an age-appropriate standard. Pupils who have not reached this level will be expected to receive extra support from their school.

But Rod Woodhouse, head of Essendon CofE Primary in Hertfordshire, is sceptical about the value of the test. "It threw up no surprises," he said. "We know exactly where our children are in phonics and this didn't tell us anything we didn't know. It was a bit of a waste of time. As a school we are fairly relaxed about the whole thing, but it did mean time out of the timetable that the children could have spent doing something more important.

"All the paperwork and back-up emails about it must be keeping someone in a job: update number seven was about how to act on the results, which is like giving grandma an egg to suck."

Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, agreed. "There are concerns that there is quite a lot of effort being spent and it tells us nothing new," he said. "One objective of the check was to raise the profile of phonics. But heads are already aware that Ofsted is inspecting phonics and it is part of the draft national curriculum.

"People are paying more attention to phonics, which means the test is even less likely to come up with new information than it was during the pilot."

Janet Marland, head of Cavendish Community Primary in West Didsbury, Manchester, said: "The test hasn't highlighted any problems that we didn't know about already."

And Ms Marland added that the exercise generated dubious results. "We have a child in Year 1 who understands the decoding system, so can sound out words - scoring 37 out of 40 - but cannot read with understanding," she said. "We also have some children who can show a good understanding of what they read but scored under 32 (the pass mark) in the test."

Some heads, however, were more positive. Susan Shoveller, deputy head of South Farnham School in Surrey, said the test was seen as just another assessment by her and her staff. "It all went very smoothly. It was a nice-looking booklet and the children took about five minutes to read it, so it was not an onerous process for them," she said.

"We didn't do any preparation for it. We have a structured phonics programme, and if you do two phonics sessions a day you don't get twice the value because children benefit from enjoying what they're doing, so we kept our teaching exactly the same."

The evaluation of the pilot study found that in almost half of schools the check helped to identify problems that they were unaware of.

Although the test results will not be published in a school-by-school table, schools must tell parents whether their child has failed or passed. In the pilot study, the pass mark was set at such a high level that about two-thirds of children failed.

From the forums

The test itself lasts less than 10 minutes, but preparation can take much longer, as teachers on the TES primary forum found.

Lardylady: "Before half-term, the literacy coordinator seemed appalled that I hadn't been practising the format of the phonics screening test with individual children. Her argument is that children might be freaked out by it, which might affect their scores. I just can't justify wasting teaching time by practising a test."

Msz: "I'm the literacy coordinator, but ours haven't practised. Our Year 1 teacher actually asked if she should be panicking because everyone she knew seemed to be."

Balse: "I did the practice paper with my Year 1s in FebruaryMarch - it takes about five minutes per child."

Katy_T: "I did a practice paper with my class a month ago. After the test I found that a lot of my class struggled with the nonsense words. I dedicated a week of my literacy before the half-term to practising and making up nonsense words. Fingers crossed this has helped and they will do better in the test."

druimgigha: "I have done a lot of nonsense words, but have always used these anyway, usually in a trash or treasure type game. I find the poorer ones do better with these as they do just apply phonics. The better readers, especially those with a good vocabulary, try so hard to read it as a proper word."


Photo credit: Paul BoxReport Digital

Original headline: `A waste of time': heads' verdict on phonics test

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