Helen Ward · Nick Gibb · Sue Palmer · TES

Heads’ nervousness increases as phonics check looms

As June approaches and more heads across the country realise that, in a little over two months, their Year 1 pupils will be sitting the government’s new phonics screening check, the level of panic is beginning to rise.
Yesterday’s TES (‘Heads read the riot act over new phonics test’) was reporting that some heads are beginning to squirm because they think the pass mark for the test is too high, a sure sign that some have decided to get their excuses in first. Tony Draper, head of Water Hall Primary School in Milton Keynes, was quoted as saying:
“Who in their right minds thinks about telling the parents of six-year-olds and the children themselves that they are failures?  It’s moronic. They are not failures, they are learners. They are at different stages of their learning journey.”
Tony obviously isn’t thinking too much himself. No-one is suggesting that children should be told they are ‘failures’ and it’s pretty ‘moronic’ to believe that the government would be asking heads to do this.
Never one to resist the opportunity to grab a headline, Sue Palmer also pops up to inform us that the drive to raise standards over the past fifteen years ‘has made not one bit of difference’, though what she bases this claim on isn’t clear. She says:
“Children are being crammed rather than learning and it makes reading and writing far less enjoyable. I think if two-thirds of children are failing a pilot, it suggests that the standard they have set is too high for that age group.”
Of course, another view might be that children are not being taught to read and write well enough and that standards weren’t set highly enough in the past. In optimistic vein, Palmer bleats that children starting Year 2 (their third year of school) won’t have any sand and water in which to play. She claims that ‘knowing they have to do this reading stuff which they didn’t do very well in last year and have another test to do at the end of the year, it may well put them off’.
What Palmer is saying is that if pupils can’t read words like ‘grit’, ‘best’, and ‘chill’ and nonsense words like ‘bim’, ‘vap’, ‘sproft’ and ‘chom’ by the end of Y1, the test is too hard. It really makes you wonder what kind of world people like Draper and Palmer live in.
Other heads are more sanguine. Kevin Bullock, head at Fordham Primary School in Cambridgeshire, declared that ‘the test is just an indicator of how children are progressing in phonics.’ Sensible chap!

Unfortunately, as Helen Ward recognises, the publishers are licking their lips, hoping that the screening check will frighten teachers into buying DfE-approved phonics resources under the match-funding scheme in the hope that these will somehow provide them with a panacea. It won’t! What teachers need, as they have always needed in the past, is proper training in how to teach phonics. Nick Gibb needs to de-couple resources from training under the match-funding arrangement and to start promoting training much more vigorously, as his head of Ofsted is recommending.

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