This week’s TES is reporting that the chief inspector of Estyn (the Welsh equivalent of Ofsted) Ann Keane has just published a report claiming that 40% of pupils starting secondary school in Wales do so with a reading age of six months below their chronological age.
What I would like to know is how she came by that figure. If the average age of pupils starting secondary school is about eleven years and six months, this means that only 40% are below a reading age of about eleven years and six months.
I don’t believe it! The figure confounds everything we hear on our courses from English secondary teachers and TAs who screen secondary children from the moment when they arrive in secondary school. What they tell us is that around sixty percent plus of children regularly test below their chronological age. What’s more, many of those are falling below a reading age of nine years and six months, the level below which many practitioners believe it is possible for a pupil to cope at all successfully with the secondary curriculum.
The figures given for Wales make no sense at all. If 60% of pupils have a reading age at or above their chronological age (C 11.6) and the other 40% of pupils have a reading age of eleven, everyone would be functioning at secondary level perfectly well. So, why does Professor David Reynolds, a senior policy adviser to the Welsh government and educationist at the University of Southampton, describe the findings of the chief inspector as ‘shocking’ and even go as far (here) as characterising Wales as ‘producerism’s last hurrah’?
It’s because everyone knows that if every pupil were to be tested using a properly normed and standardised test, the results would be so egregious as to cause a national scandal.
With only two out of seven local authorities in Wales rated as ‘good’ and one in special measures, the teachers’ union ATL Cymru blames the local authorities. Philip Dixon of the ATL Cymru is quoted as remarking that, while high level of social deprivation cannot be used as an excuse – nice bit of rhetorical special pleading that, Philip –, ‘the English prescription is not one that we’d want to take, as it is far too rigid in its approach’. I take this to be code for repudiating the need to teach phonics to beginning readers and/or the need to test to find out if children are learning. The heads’ union the NAHT said that there was ‘agreement about what was needed to be done’ and felt that ‘the diagnosis is attracting far more energy than making sure the remedies are developed properly’. I’m sure they would far rather no one published any nasty statistics about how many pupils their schools are failing every year so that everyone could go back to enjoying a quiet life.
And Leighton Andrews, who has presided over this debacle as minister for Children Education and Lifelong Learning since 2009? He prattles on about how the report identifies ‘where we have been successful and where the education sector in Wales needs to raise game’. Notice how the statement mentions success and associates it with the inclusive ‘we’, which is carefully positioned before that part of the statement that says it (Wales) ‘needs to raise its game’ – a subtle way of distancing the minister from the ‘shocking’ results.
And what were the successes he is so keen to celebrate? Oh yes, 95% of pupils feel safe and 95% of them ‘know who to talk to if they are worried or upset’. I wonder if they would feel as ‘safe’ if many of them knew that they would find it desperately hard to find work when they leave school because they can’t read very well or because they are innumerate.
Parents in Wales should be outraged by the spin and prevarication of government at all levels and of the unions. A proper, publicly accountable system of independent testing needs to be established and there needs to be an immediate return to phonics teaching for beginning readers and for those children who have fallen behind as a matter of the most urgent priority.