School Background Statement
Harmans Water Primary School is very large compared with most schools for children aged between three and eleven. The 600+ children are organised into 21 classes and a nursery, with our Reception children all starting in September for the first time in 2006. Pupils come from a broad range of backgrounds and most live either on the immediate estate or nearby ones. The number of pupils receiving free school meals is 8.1%, below the national average, but a significant proportion come from homes with relatively low incomes. The proportion of pupils on the school’s register of special educational needs is 14.4%, which is broadly in line with the national average. However, pupils enter the school with attainment that is, on balance, below average and many have significant weaknesses in language skills. For this reason our main focus is on raising achievement in the basic skills of literacy and numeracy with writing being a main focus for the last six years. During this time achievement in writing has improved dramatically with our pupils often attaining a higher level for writing at Key Stage 2 than in reading. Many local schools have visited us to look at what we are doing.
In the Beginning
Shortly after joining the school in April 2004 I became concerned that phonics did not seem to be taught consistently or systematically in Foundation and Key Stage 1. In Foundation, when asked about phonics, staff claimed to be using the Jolly Phonics scheme and had been for a number of years. In year 1 and year 2 the ‘Searchlights’ approach was being used for writing and spelling and phonic work suggested in the Literacy Strategy followed. From lesson observations it became clear that staff using the Jolly Phonics scheme were not using a synthetic phonics approach and that staff in Key Stage 1 were using something different and in conflict with the Foundation Stage. There was no consistency or building on prior knowledge and staff had a limited understanding of how a thorough understanding of phonics would impact on pupil reading and spelling.
A whole staff inset was held on 9th Feb 2005 in which I explained the principles of using a synthetic phonics approach and the benefits of the multi-sensory approach of Jolly Phonics. Staff included Foundation, Key Stage 1, Key Stage 2, the on-site Pre-School and all Learning Support Assistants. Everyone could see the sense and logic in it but also understood we had a huge task to make our approach consistent not only from teaching staff but also from parents. It was going to mean big changes to the way we introduced early reading in the school and would require some financial commitment. Everyone agreed that this would be a valuable investment of time and money as it would support and enhance our already good work in developing early writing but also have a positive impact on reading. Although not all of the staff were convinced they agreed to give it a go.
Over the next year we set about training staff and parents and embedding the practice in the school, initially focusing on Foundation and Key Stage 1. We created staff experts in years 1, 2 and 3 who modelled lessons and supported colleagues. We did peer coaching so that teaching and support staff were learning alongside each other and we accessed any available information on synthetic phonics on the internet including the RRF and Debbie Hepplewhite’s website, www.syntheticphonics.com. Whenever a member of staff found a relevant article it was sent round to everyone by email including the Key Stage 2 staff. This promoted valuable professional dialogue about the best approaches and methods. We also made links with Elizabeth Nonweiler, a member of the RRF. She looked into the impact of training in phonics on perceptions and understanding of staff. She provided whole staff inset and group training for LSAs.
For parents we had special information sessions, some evening and some daytime with a crèche. This covered all the parents who were interested but we needed everyone to hear about it, so we began to take every opportunity with a captive audience to talk about synthetic phonics. The Head Teacher and I would do a double act of demonstrating the phonemes and actions, we would stress the use of the correct sound and explain about blending and segmenting. Once teachers became confident they had phonic drop-ins first thing in the morning. They would stand at their door in the morning and say, ‘Good morning Mrs Smith have you seen how we teach phonics yet? Come in it will only take 10 minutes and it will help you support your child at home!’ Pretty soon not only were the teachers buzzing about this fantastic new method but the parents were too. They saw rapid progress in their children’s abilities to read and write with confidence; some talked about their own problems with reading and spelling and wished they’d been taught this way.
One of the major changes that we had to make was to the early reading scheme. Previously we had used Oxford Reading Tree right through the school. A lovely scheme but not based on a phonetic approach. We sought advice from other schools who had made these changes on what books to use. Debbie Hepplewhite came to visit us with a selection of schemes that could be used and we set about purchasing the reading resources that we needed. We even set the staff a challenge to rewrite the text for some of the early ORT books so that it would be decodable for the children and had a small group of parents who were cutting and sticking the new text into the books! We worried about parent reaction to not having reading books immediately in the Reception classes but we did not have one complaint. The phonic games practising blending, segmenting and writing that went home were fully supported.
Our Key Stage 1 Literacy Manager then set about writing a scheme of work for the teaching of early reading based on the new phonics banding we created of red, orange and green. Once children reached the green banding level they would be ready to jump off into the normal bookbanding system of reading books used by most schools. What we found immediately was that the children who had started with the new system in Reception or year one were entering the bookbanding system at a higher level (orange) than they would previously have attained in the same time on the old system.
Members of staff in year 2 were so impressed with the impact on their current year who had only had the systematic approach since they came into year 2 that they said they couldn’t wait to get the year 1 cohort who had already had a whole year of good synthetic phonics teaching.
By the end of the academic year 2005-2006 the use of synthetic phonics and the new reading scheme was established in Foundation and Key Stage 1 and had also been used effectively in year 3 led by the Key Stage 2 Literacy Manager. Towards the end of the year staff in year 4 watched model lessons in year 3 and 2 to prepare them for their new cohort who would be confident using the method. Our task was to now make the Key Stage 2 staff as confident as the Foundation and Key Stage 1 staff in building on the pupils’ prior learning in phonics. The Literacy Manager moved from year 3 to year 5 where she could support staff developing this teaching and all year leaders were sent on a course run by Jaz Ampaw-Farr of ‘Which Phonics’. This was just the catalyst they needed. They could now see how this essentially ‘infant’ scheme actually impacted on their year group and the benefit of continuing to build on the pupils’ phonic skills. You can now walk into any class at Harmans Water from Nursery to Year 5 and see displays to support the skills of synthetic phonics. With the support of the Literacy Managers, Year Leaders have re-written the word level section of the strategy and are using this to teach with regular ‘snappy lessons’ to build pupils’ capacity for using phonics in spelling and reading.
We can already see the impact on pupil learning from tracking data. At the end of year one in 2005 65% of pupils were below average for reading and 35% average or above. At the end of year one in 2006 45% were below average and 55% were average or above. This is a significant shift comparing two cohorts with a fairly similar potential. The only difference between the two was that the 2006 cohort had two good years of synthetic phonic teaching.
Many comments have come from staff expressing the big impact that this has had on reading and writing skills. In Foundation Stage, staff feel that children are definitely moving on more quickly and are not afraid to tackle any word. There have been some delightful moments reported by the office staff of small children coming with messages and sounding out the names on doors to check if they are in the right place! In year two, colleagues feel that it has given all the children greater confidence in writing and reading skills and that the progression to reading books which are not purely phonic has been seamless because children are not afraid to pick up anything and have a go at reading it. In Key Stage two the use of synthetic phonics has particularly boosted the confidence of the less able who are never stuck because they know where to look for help with displays in every room of the complex code. For the more able the knowledge of the complex code has enriched their approach to spelling. Finally the year 6 leader commented recently that for the first time in his experience at the school he is not afraid to ask any child to read out loud because all have good decoding skills. This is a year group that has not had the consistent input right from the beginning, only a little bit in their last two years. Just imagine how a year 6 will be performing with consistent teaching right from the beginning. We await the first cohort who has had consistent phonic teaching throughout their schooling to reach year 6 with great excitement!