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Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) - Promoting Synthetic Phonics : Page Title

RRF Newsletter 50 back to contents
Thoughts related to the Ofsted report (HMI 555) The National Literacy Strategy: the first four years 1998 – 2002Debbie Hepplewhite

Almost uniquely, leading figures in Ofsted have always corresponded with the Reading Reform Foundation with the utmost speed, courtesy and integrity. They have engaged in the phonics debate conscientiously and have played a crucial role in moving the debate along. This latest report plays no small part in highlighting the need for a critical review of the National Literacy Strategy. 

The report itself, however, operates on two levels. The message received is dependent upon the reader’s prior knowledge of the literacy debate and an understanding of the true state of play of national literacy and special needs. 

The report alludes to underlying flaws in the NLS framework, but should it have referred explicitly to the NLS programmes’ notable absence of evidence, the national confusion regarding the searchlights reading model which some see as a model for adult readers, but others (including NLS trainers) use as a model for promoting guessing through picture and context cues, and the anti-research ‘top down/whole language’ nature of the Early Literacy Support intervention programme (see Bonnie Macmillan’s report, p.11, RRF Newsletter no. 49)? What prevents Ofsted from detailing the different approaches in our schools to teaching reading and the subsequent results? Do we need clarification of the current range of practices in primary schools and the results of those different practices at least amongst the 300 sample schools? We do not have the luxury of Ofsted’s national overview and people can only become fully informed if someone does the informing fully. 

I have always found it puzzling that Ofsted reporting goes to the lengths of describing the details of individual lessons to provide examples of good and poor teaching practice on the one hand, whilst failing to describe the details of the specific teaching approach of outstandingly effective schools on the other. From which type of detailed information would the reader most profit? 

By coincidence one such effective school, St. Michael’s Primary School at Stoke Gifford, is one of Ofsted’s 300 sample schools for this report. It is also one of the synthetic phonics exemplar schools (see p.5 of RRF newsletter no. 46, A Five Year Journey with Synthetic Phonics by Dr. Marlynne Grant). Is it acceptable, or is it remiss or unethical, that such a school has been included in the general description of an ‘NLS’ school for the purposes of this Ofsted survey and apparently does not warrant the distinction of being described as a ‘synthetic phonics’ school when it employs distinctively different reading instruction techniques from the National Literacy Strategy? One cannot help but wonder whether Ofsted is as independent a body as we would like it to be or whether it is handicapped by the precedent it has set for its particular style of reporting. There may well be no differences in results between a strictly NLS school with a similar intake to a strictly synthetic phonics school but this is not what the reading research and the classroom practice of at least some schools is indicating. Should Ofsted be helping us to get a much clearer picture of the reality? Indeed, questions need to be asked as to why the DfES and the LEAs fail to inform teachers and headteachers of the precise programmes and practices of the most successful schools with disadvantaged intakes so that others may gain from such invaluable information. National statistics of results from end of key stage testing without further information do not help schools to know how to make improvements. Graphs may put schools in a pecking order but this amounts to data in a vacuum.  

It appears to be normal practice to sweep all schools under the NLS umbrella whether this is the truth or not. Is this helpful? I, for one, cannot understand this reluctance to identify different practice and do not find this acceptable. How many other schools of the 300 also employed different practices from NLS advice - or was St. Michael’s the only one? How are we to know? Why does Ofsted avoid the use of terms such as ‘synthetic phonics’, which it describes as “jargon”, when this debate about how best to teach beginning reading is fundamental to educational success or failure and is arguably the single most important debate in English-speaking countries today? A transparent form of reporting is essential. The progress of the debate relies on people being informed about the different approaches and it is necessary to ascribe titles to the different approaches. Should this responsibility really be left to volunteer groups like the Reading Reform Foundation and to the journalists? 

Should Ofsted have reported upon ‘national literacy’ rather than the National Literacy Strategy? Should Ofsted have felt free to describe and compare the success of the variety of approaches within the country noting, for example, the relative success of NLS schools, THRASS schools, Solity’s Early Reading Research schools, Phono-Graphix schools and Jolly Phonics schools? Alternately, should Ofsted use the technical criteria of ‘whole language schools’, ‘eclectic schools’, ‘synthetic phonics schools’ and so on? Isn’t this an essential analysis, albeit academic to some, to ascertain if there is currently a pattern of greater success of any particular approach to reading instruction, including reduced numbers of children indentified with literacy-related special needs and whether this is commensurate with the conclusions of reading research? With the high percentage of illiteracy and underachievement in this country, surely this kind of scrutiny and detail should be neither neglected nor circumvented. In any event, there is so much literature on reading research and the debate is so important that I cannot understand why Ofsted is not leading the way to bring this level of information to the teaching profession.  

Has Ofsted itself undertaken an “open, critical approach to the strategy at national level” as it urges the teachers? Not fully. It is not entirely satisfactory to put the onus on the teachers as the vast majority of teachers are mistrained, uninformed and lack the national overview of the effects of different practices. Therefore, I argue the responsibility for more open criticism lies with Ofsted itself acting on behalf of the teachers, the children and the general public. I urge the reader (yet again) to read carefully “between the lines” of this report as Ofsted fails to be sufficiently explicit and transparent in the detail of what transpires in our primary schools to inform ordinary teachers, headteachers and parents how best to move forwards with the teaching of reading. The implication is that all schools are NLS schools, that the NLS needs tweaking and that all teachers need to do is throw in some extra phonics in years 3 and 4 and teach a bit better. There is much more to it than this. I suggest that an ‘open and critical approach to the strategy at national level’ should include questions as to why NLS programmes are not scientifically tested prior to the national roll-out and who is responsible for this, why the advice of various phonics experts has not been heeded from at least the outset of the National Literacy Strategy four years ago when Ofsted, HMI and the reading research have perpetually pointed to the need for more phonics teaching, and why Ofsted continues to report in a veiled manner whilst clearly stating that teachers themselves need to start thinking critically and independently. One of the most mystifying questions of all is why Stephen Anwyll, Dr Laura Huxford, Baroness Ashton, Estelle Morris (when Ms Morris was in office) and others took no interest in a reading instruction approach which results in no gender gap and a virtual 100% success rate at key stage 1 and beyond. There is a wealth of information about how best to teach reading effectively and inclusively and it has existed for many years. Why have the managers of the National Literacy Strategy chosen to ignore it and why have they chosen to ignore Ofsted’s advice to ‘the managers of the NLS’ in the report Teaching of Phonics, Oct 2001? 

With ever-increasing prescription, bureaucracy and legislation, there has not been a culture of teachers thinking critically and independently for some time. When they do, it is my experience and the experience of others that this is far from welcomed. In any event, teachers feel that they have no influence and cannot reverse the flood of initiatives of one description or another whether or not they consider them to be beneficial. The state of play that we see in our schools currently is one that I call ‘over-professionalism’. Teachers are so overwhelmed that they are tempted to leave permanent positions, avoid year 2 and year 6 posts (the end of key stage tests cohorts), leave teaching altogether, or simply perform their duties as prescribed with a certain abrogation of their individual responsibility because they are doing as they have been officially instructed. They have virtually no choice but to pass the buck. What worries me enormously is the common vocabulary of teachers with regard to their planning, which they speak of as ‘justifying’, ‘evidencing’ and ‘being seen to be done’ rather than planning to be effective and organised teachers. Fear of Ofsted and LEA inspection is still onerous, at least when it is imminent, and many people seem to think that a school becomes more effective because of the quality of the paperwork rather than the day-to-day efforts of the teachers. What a state of affairs. We are crying out for someone with authority to bring common sense back to the business of running our schools, to bring honest evaluation to the literacy debate and to test scientifically any government initiatives before national roll-outs. 

Here is an example of the dangers of omitting important detail: 

Extract from p.2 of Ofsted’s report: 

The progress made by some of the lowest-attaining schools over the last four years makes it very clear that significant improvements are possible. It is undoubtedly harder for some schools than for others to change teaching and raise standards, but even in areas of social deprivation and staffing difficulties, just under half of the schools have made good progress. 

Yes, Ofsted, but which schools made the most progress and what did they do? 

Very pertinent to Ofsted’s comment above is the case of Osmani School in Tower Hamlets. I have no idea whether this is in the sample of 300 but I mention this school to make a point about the current disguising of what is really going on in some of our schools and how we must know of the details to gain a greater understanding. An article in the magazine produced by the Department for Education and Skills, Teachers, (Learning Lessons, February 2002) used this school as an example for promoting the effectiveness of the national strategies:  

A journalist wrote; ‘One of the most dramatic stories was provided by the Osmani School in Tower Hamlets. In 1998, Ofsted described the school as ‘failing’, with just over one in eight pupils achieving the necessary standards at KS2. Three years later, the same set of results showed that the Osmani School was the most improved school in the country. 

“The literacy and numeracy hours have been key to the improvement,” says headteacher Judith Grylls.’ 

There was no mention in this DfES article that Osmani School did not follow the National Literacy Strategy advice for beginning reading.  

In December 2001, however, Osmani School featured in both the Times Educational Supplement and The Daily Telegraph and both articles pointed out that Osmani School did not follow the National Literacy Strategy advice for the teaching of reading. In The Daily Telegraph (5 December, 2001) Liz Lightfoot wrote: 

‘The Government’s literacy and numeracy hours have helped to raise standards, [Judith Grylls] says, although the school has rejected the method of teaching reading in the strategy, substituting Jolly Phonics, a more traditional and faster way of familiarising children with the relationship between letters and sounds.’ 

It seems to me that the method of teaching beginning reading is a vital factor in the future literacy success of the children and one that should not be disguised. Yet time and again Ofsted fudges the issues and the DfES and the National Literacy Strategy managers to date have completely buried their heads in the sand.  

Further extracts from the Ofsted report, pages 35 and 36: 

150.        Despite these improvements, however, progress has been uneven. This year’s English results at Key Stage 2 have fallen five percentage points short of the government’s target. Last year’s report referred to the need for reflection and analysis and this need still remains. [It appears that the NLS managers chose to ignore the advice of Ofsted in the Teaching of Phonics, October 2001, report – Ed.] 

151.        There are a number of weaknesses in the design and implementation of the strategy. Some of these have been inherent from the beginning: 

q       The guidance from the NLS on how to teach phonics was not helpful enough in enabling teachers to teach phonic knowledge and skills systematically and speedily enough from Year R onwards. The teaching of phonics got off to a poor start and it has still not had enough impact on Years 3 and 4. [It is in reception and key stage 1 that greater emphasis should be placed on phonics teaching, then we would not need to plough phonics intervention strategies into years 3 and 4 – Ed.] 

q       The ‘searchlights’ model of reading took a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach and therefore placed too much emphasis, at the earliest stages of learning to read, on the use of a broad range of decoding strategies and not enough on phonics. [Ofsted has expressed its concern about the ‘searchlights’ model misleadingly. A ‘one-size-fits-all’ synthetic phonics strategy is remarkably effective. Premature use of a broad range of reading strategies invariably entails the promotion of ‘guessing’ and learning words as wholes which are the damaging elements – Ed.] 

q       Approaches to the teaching of reading, in particular shared and guided reading, were untested in this country. Teachers took a long time to get used to guided reading and there are still aspects of both that are unsatisfactory. [Are any of the NLS programmes scientifically tested?  – Ed.] 

152.        Other weaknesses have become apparent more recently: 

q       In responding to emerging weaknesses, the strategy has produced extra guidance and materials. While the materials themselves have been useful, schools have found it difficult to take an overview of all the elements and this has adversely affected the coherence of the teaching. [More and more intervention and booster programmes cannot make good the damage of a dearth of phonics and blending in the beginning stages of learning to read. All the additional programmes are unmanageable and the Early Literacy Support programme in particular needs immediate withdrawal as it is grossly mistraining teachers and teaching assistants – Ed.] 

q       The strategy has not succeeded in helping schools to narrow the gap between the performance of boys and girls, particularly in writing, which is now wider than it was four years ago; nor has it increased sufficiently the proportion of boys achieving level 4 in writing at the end of Key Stage 2. [The RRF and others have made it perfectly clear that there is no gender gap with synthetic phonics teaching. Why have the DfES, the NLS team, Baroness Ashton, Estelle Morris and others not been interested in this important fact? – Ed.]  

153.      To tackle the deepest and most intractable of these problems will require further development of the strategy, as well as better and more challenging teaching across the board. It is imperative that the next phase of the strategy deals with embedding it, not just within the primary curriculum as a whole, but also in the way teachers work. There are still teachers who follow the framework and guidance with too little questioning and reflection. Schools have reached the stage where they need to make the strategy work for them – and that includes being critical of things that are not effective enough. A great deal has been achieved, but further progress will depend on an open, critical approach to the strategy at a national level. This report describes the strategy’s successes, but it also draws attention to areas for improvement. [‘Areas for improvement’ is a very diplomatic way of describing flaws and malpractice! Parts of the strategy need totally changing and other parts need modifying. There are some good ideas, however, and these need identifying along with the poor ideas without the complication of politics and  diplomacy – Ed.] 

Fortunately, Ofsted’s report has created a great deal of media attention including television and radio broadcasts and a flurry of articles in various newspapers from leading journalists who are all well-informed about the current literacy debate. News that Professor David Hopkins, head of the standards and effectiveness unit, “will be holding a seminar in March this year to look at recent research evidence and programmes about phonics, and how these could inform the future development of the NLS” shortly followed. 

This is excellent news, but it remains to be seen how the NLS managers can be moved away from their considerable intransigence and unaccountability to date. Even now, during the latest training delivered by the National Literacy Strategy managers to NLS consultants on ‘Third Wave Intervention’, a question about synthetic phonics was swept aside and the synthetic phonics research was dismissed out of hand. Furthermore, during special needs training there was not a single mention of the success of synthetic phonics programmes both for initial teaching and intervention. This is inexplicable. 

And here is one last extract from p. 3 of the Ofsted report: 

These results show that nearly one third of pupils still transfer to Key Stage 2 with reading skills below level 2B; in writing, four in ten pupils transfer with attainment below this level including almost half of all boys. At level 2B and above, the gap between the attainment of boys and girls in writing is 15 percentage points. This wide gap continues to be a cause for concern. 

Results like these, as described in Ofsted’s report, account for my often controversial comments. This high failure rate and the lack of government interest in scientific testing and synthetic phonics thus far is, in my opinion, not excusable. I cannot understand it.  

We can only hope that Professor Hopkins’ forthcoming phonics seminar (17 March 2003) will set everyone on the long-awaited road to sense, scientific practices and literacy which is truly ‘national’. It is imperative that the DfES responds fully and professionally to the critics of the NLS reading instruction advice and does not merely pay lip-service to listening to old and new evidence whilst carrying on regardless with flawed NLS programmes and training. We shall soon see for ourselves what the future holds.




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