Why children should definitely be taught phonics and why we shouldn’t discourage it.

So I’ve been asked to clarify all the problems with this blog which I have described as inaccurate, misguided and potentially very dangerous. Where to start?

OK. Firstly children are not “fast becoming to believe that to learn to read is to identify and pronounce words correctly”. They might believe this as a slightly clumsy definition of decoding and they would be right. However if there is one thing that children are definitely clear on it is that we want them to understand what they have read. They know this because we keep asking them to prove it. Does the author really believe that there is too little emphasis on comprehension in our schools? What about all the guided reading and comprehension tasks which are performed in just about every school in the country every day?

Secondly “most proponents of a phonics based approach emphasise decoding rather than comprehension” and “seem to think that once words are identified meaning will take care of itself”. This simply isn’t true. Proponents of phonics or “teachers who teach children how to read and spell” as I like to call them simply believe that phonics is a key part of learning to read and spell.


What “phonic rules” are you talking about? This part is just weird. There are no phonics rules. There are words with similar patterns with different sounds, because English is the most complex spelling code in the world. This is precisely why we should take a phonics based approach when teaching spelling. Briefly if you were teaching children to spell words with the same vowel sound as “bread” you would teach them all together “head” “read”. You don’t teach an erroneous “rule” you just practise writing and sounding out all the similar words so when pupils are thinking about how to spell them they think  “Ah yes “read” is like “bread”.

Phonics does not damage “reading for pleasure” but not teaching children how to decode does, because pupils who can’t decode can’t read for pleasure. I have taught far too many pupils who thought they were “thick” because they arrived at secondary school unable to read and to be frank if they had had a decent phonics foundation they would have avoided years of feeling inadequate. Here is just one example of the damage this sort of misguided assertion leads to.

To be fair the blog does later admit that phonics is helpful. It’s not helpful its vital, but hey ho. Then the writer seems to advocate using context to guess. This is a last resort to turn to in an exam if you don’t know what a word means. It is not a good or efficient reading instruction. It is far better if they actually know what a word means. Phonics on its own won’t tell a child what a word means and nobody, nobody at all I’ve ever met or spoken to or read about has ever suggested otherwise.

I don’t even know where to start with the “vowels are unimportant” nonsense except to ask what does this say, I rd t tht rdng th bk ws fn. Also phonics teaching is very much based on knowledge not skills. Essential knowledge which allows children to decode.

In terms of damage, let me just point out that when phonics teaching is not up to scratch far far too many pupils end up in secondary believing they are stupid, without a clue about what is going on. Unless they are then given really intensive support they may leave secondary school the same way and blogs like this really, really shouldn’t encourage that. Nobody should.  



Welsh Lessons 3: Endemic systematic failure.

I began the first of this series of posts including some information about the scale of the reading problem I faced as a Literacy Coordinator in charge of reading intervention according to the standardised Suffolk reading test scores we collected on pupils on entry. Here is that information again.

It is always important to see these sorts of figures in relation to cohort size.

Y7        87/262 pupils (33%) below 9 years 6 months 108/262 pupils (41%) below 10

Y8        54/262 pupils (21%) below9 years 6 months 66/262 pupils (25%) below 10

Y9        47/214 pupils (22%) below 9 years 6 months 65/214 pupils (30%) below 10

Y10      64/270 pupils (24%) below 9 years 6 months 72/270 pupils (27%) below 10

Y11      63/274 pupils (23%) below 9 years 6 months 68/270 pupils (25%) below 10


Now you can see for Y8-11 on entry around 22% had a reading age below 9 years six months and around 28 % had a reading age below ten. This was the case for years even before I was put in charge of intervention. And figures like this do not point the finger of blame at any one individual. In fact an annual entry like this indicates an endemic systematic failure…so there is plenty of blame to share about with everybody! The fact that we drew from over 27 different primary schools both within and outside our catchment area also indicates that there was a widespread problem.

Now you might be thinking at this stage, “Ah wait a minute Dave, this is just one test. You can’t go judging problems on the basis of one test. Who do you think you are – the government?” And you would be right. Of course there were a lot more tests, but the figures I’m giving you here were the tip of a very slippery iceberg. Around 12-15% of pupils who scored badly on this test also had problems decoding and others had different problems: some who lacked confidence massively because they thought they were stupid because they could not read fluently; some who could read fluently but were behind on their spelling; some with linked behavioural issues because they thought they were stupid; some who had not progressed because of attendance and/or extremely poor behaviour; some who could decode but not comprehend what they had read; some with difficult backgrounds; some with difficulties in concentration; some with difficulties in memory; some who were incredibly lazy; some who had just given up.

In fact if pupils begin secondary school unable to decode fluently they are years behind their school mates. Think about it: what age would you expect a pupil to be at least decoding fluently. 7? 8 at a push? Many of the pupils starting Comprehensive were therefore at least 3 years behind. They had often felt like failures for 3 years of their life in school. We often hear politicians talking about grit. Please. They don’t know the meaning of the word. Try feeling like a failure since the age of 8: frustrated, disheartened, lost. Then tell me what grit is

And yet.

Young people are remarkable. Look at the progress one young person managed to achieve:

      BSTS Spelling Age Sept Y7 BSTS spelling age Sept Y8 Spelling improvement over 1 year in months       SRS Reading Age Sept Y7       SRS Reading Age Sept Y8       Reading Age +/- Over 1 Year in months       SRS Reading Age Sept Y9 Improvement over two years Salford Reading Age June Y7 Salford Reading Age June Y8
7.11 10.07 32 8.05 11.1 40 14.11 78 9.07 11


Here is a child who stared failure and adversity in the face and beat it back with hard work and determination. He had to learn how to decode and encode, AND then improve fluency and vocabulary. He has to read enough to catch up with the pupils who have been able to decode since the age of 7 or 8 and have been therefore reading more difficult texts than him for years. In fact his progress seems even more impressive, because I only introduced the Salford test at the end of Y7 and he only got to 9 Years 7 months after 6 months of intervention.

Of course there is more at play here. If this pupil had not used his newly gained knowledge and skills to read a lot more himself he simply wouldn’t have caught up to this extent. If we had not had excellent parental support it would have been a lot more difficult.

OK so I’m ace right? Some sort of literacy Messiah? No. Why was this pupil so very far behind to begin with? What had gone wrong? I’m not arrogant or stupid enough to believe I performed some sort of magic? Indeed I wouldn’t even claim that the intervention was anywhere near where I wanted it to be at this stage. When you meet pupils like this who seem well behaved, hardworking, quite intelligent and polite and they can’t decode, their progress does make you feel proud, but it also makes you feel irate. It’s not on. Heads should roll. It is because I’ve met pupils like this and seen some of the awful consequences on pupils’ achievement and self-esteem that I understand when those in charge of reading intervention vent their anger about pupils being unable to read on entry by slamming “learning through play” or just primary schools in general. I’m sure the excellent primary colleagues I follow on Twitter would feel a similar level of outrage faced with the same thing.

However, as I said at the start, the problem we faced was clearly indicative of endemic systematic failure and there is plenty of blame to share.  So what had exactly had been going wrong? Well as far as I could gather from speaking to parents and pupils and teachers there were a number of problems at play.

  1. Phonics

Not enough time was spent on teaching teachers how to teach phonics in ITT. In fact I was told by one primary trained teacher that she spent more time on how to teach Music than how to teach pupils to decode in her ITT.

Primary schools were not given regular refresher courses in teaching children to read. This meant that if the teachers who had been trained moved on to another year group or another school, their replacement did not necessarily therefore have the same expertise. The teacher the pupils moved onto also did not necessarily have the training/expertise to address pupils’ deficits.

There was a tradition of doing “Jolly Phonics” and whilst the books were out of date and still included “sight words” the pupils sang the songs and many were given a decent start in this way. Phonics was also used to teach spelling. However if pupils missed sections of “Jolly Phonics” because of poor attendance or teachers did not take enough care over their “schwa” then pupils started to pick up problems and catch up intervention was slow in catching up.

  1. Biff, Chip and Kipper

Having been given or not given a good grounding in phonics pupils, by and large, began the Oxford Reading Tree books. If they failed to progress with Biff, Chip and Kipper, they got to do…more Biff, Chip and Kipper! If they did progress with Biff Chip and Kipper, then they got to try and finish the entire scheme. Every. Single. Book. By stage 10 pupils had begun to lose the will to live. There are so many books after that. And so many are complete dross. But some primary schools persisted with it until the bitter end. Some pupils simply pretended to read these books at home. Primary schools also did not have the funding to invest in new reading schemes.

Pupils did not read enough language rich texts once they could decode and they did not develop their vocabulary enough once they had learned to decode. In essence some pupils’ reading simply plateaued.

  1. Intervention

Intervention in some schools consisted of an untrained LSA with an outdated reading scheme. Sometimes this intervention was effective. Sometimes it was not. Either way it’s not as if there was extra funding for better training and/or resources. In some schools the only intervention a teacher could provide was done through guided reading sessions. Essentially a number of groups working independently on tasks while the teacher focussed of those who needed it the most. I have done this type of lesson myself and it really is not easy to manage. I have even heard a trainer say, “It doesn’t matter what the rest of the groups are doing as long as you are doing the guided reading with those pupils who need the most help.”

Parents did not know how far behind their children were and if they did many were unable to help them.

  1. Accountability

Accountability rested on the shoulders of the Y6 teacher assessment levels which I’ve written about before here. Essentially the Y6 teacher’s job had to provide evidence that so many pupils were a certain level. Their focus was on the bottom line and they focussed on outer appearance rather than on building strong roots for the future. Pupils redrafted and redrafted and redrafted the work or typed it up until the evidence matched the figures they were under pressure to deliver.


Of course there were more problems, but these four were the greatest systematic failures in my view. At this point I’d like to point out it is easy to be an angel in Heaven. In my experience schools and teachers work tremendously hard to fix holes in the system. The truth is there wasn’t a coherent system for addressing the problem.

In Wales, in my view, there still isn’t.

Thanks for reading.

Welsh Lessons 2: Lessons in Secondary Literacy Intervention.


It was a pleasant spring day when the head called me into a big meeting in his office with the SENCo, SLT and the Head of English. He was not happy with the progress currently being made with those pupils who required extra literacy support and he was going to invest in it on a large scale. Pupils were going to be withdrawn from French, taught in small groups of about eight, by eight different teachers and I was going to have to come up with the goods in terms of curriculum, pedagogy, testing and tracking by September. That gave me the summer term and the summer holidays to sort it out. I was a good English teacher and Literacy Coordinator with a successful track record so far, but  I had had no training in phonics other than what I had picked up on the job or learned myself. From paddling about in the shallow waters of promoting whole school literacy and wider reading, I was thrust suddenly in the deep end and began trying to keep my head above water. I hope this blog helps anyone who finds themselves in a similar position.

I was sent to see what was out there, what different schemes we had in the school, what other schools were doing or planning to do. (I may have been out of my depth but I wasn’t stupid enough to just make it up off the top of my head).  I was advised to buy SRA reading boxes (I wouldn’t do that again) as a starting point and shown the baseline tests the school carried out. The first school I was able to visit was a place called Dyffryn Taf who had already put an intervention in place.  

Dyffryn Taf

In Dyffryn Taf they used Ruth Miskin’s “Freshstart” phonics programme. Withdrawal was done extremely elegantly. Pupils were withdrawn from regular lessons (Not English) for three hours a week in groups defined by reading ages. The classes they were withdrawn from were told they must teach reading in these lessons to the rest of the class. This meant withdrawn pupils did not have to catch up and there was little disruption.

It was a slick operation in my opinion. Staff were well trained, resources were well prepared and pupils were clearly making progress. If you have a lot of pupils who need phonics instruction, it is a good option.


Unfortunately for me this system didn’t suit my school. For one, I wasn’t working with 3 hours a week, but 3 hours a fortnight. I also didn’t have the time to get all the staff trained. The other issue, as you can see from my earlier blog was that a lot of the pupils I needed to target didn’t need phonics (to decode at least). A lot needed vocabulary, stamina and fluency improvements. Nevertheless I was impressed and learned a lot. And I made my own phonics resources as a result which turned out to be useful.


Reciprocal Reading and Reading Behaviours at Cefn Hengoed

Cefn Hengoed’s approach to reading intervention and Literacy across the curriculum was remarkable. Their Literacy policy was in fact a whole school scheme of work designed to improve comprehension and vocabulary through a focus on reading behaviours. Pupils would be supported to read in small groups and discuss what they had read by taking reciprocal reading roles: Predictor, Summariser, Clarifier, Questioner, The Big Boss. This small group intervention was supported by schemes of work based on eight reading behaviours. If you need to improve comprehension it is a good option in my opinion.

Again, it seemed extremely well organised and well run. I adapted some of the reciprocal reading resources in particular and incorporated that into my shiny new SOW.  


There was a lot more I learned about: “Toe by Toe”, “Catch up Literacy”, “Alpha to Omega” and I also had all of the government produced schemes on phonics and inference and deduction.

So what I ended up with in this first year was a range of different resources put together or made by myself that staff could use or adapt to deliver whatever their groups needed.

The pilot year for my own intervention was difficult to manage. I had been given 3 one hour lessons a fortnight in which to support pupils in groups, one dedicated Literacy LSA, and 6 other teachers apart from me, none of whom I line managed, some of whom were more experienced than me. Now, although pupils did make good progress this year, I wouldn’t recommend running an intervention in this way. I’m not going to bore you with the various problems, but I’ll just tell you it felt like running a big department without the time, agency or own budget to run it. It was stressful and it felt like unwieldy so don’t do it like this.

In year 2 I changed a lot.

The literacy team became an elite force of three. The head employed a primary trained foundation phase teacher who became my right hand woman and led the intervention at the chalk face, as well as a dedicated Literacy LSA. Rather than split pupils into groups of eight split around the school we grouped pupils in the same class and so the extra teachers who supplemented the team could work together with the intervention team to help groups within the class. The lessons essentially worked like really well staffed guided reading sessions. Organising the groups in this way also meant that grouping pupils differently became very easy.

Two classes in the year group had the extra Literacy lessons twice a week instead of French and other small groups who needed help from other classes were extracted twice a week with the Literacy team. As much as was feasible I was also able to teach the Literacy classes English or as part of the Literacy team itself.

The SEN class had three hours a week with the SENco and she was given the freedom to meet the needs of these pupils in whatever way she thought best.

The level of intervention we offered also changed. Rapid-plus has an online element to it which we used to give pupils light touch support during registration periods. Whilst the majority of pupils receiving intervention had two sessions a week in small groups, we could also offer extra 1:1 support for those pupils who had the greatest difficulties. Having a smaller more manageable core team like this meant we were able to evaluate and discuss teaching and learning on a daily basis. We were able to refine, adapt and develop our instruction to get the best outcomes. We were also able to train buddy readers who would give basic one to one support also during registration.

There is another element which I should mention: the “Literacy Coffee Evening”. We invited the parents or guardians of all the pupils we provided support for, to come in, listen to a short presentation on who we all were and how we were going to support their children, and how they could help at home. We provided coffee, biscuits, showed the resources we would use and had informal chats with parents eager to help their children. This proved to be the most important part of the intervention for many pupils and the impact was in some cases truly remarkable.

Our goal was to make as many of the pupils functionally literate with a reading age above ten according to standardised tests as we could and we were hugely successful in meeting this target. (There were 4 pupils outside of the special needs class who didn’t quite hit the mark).

I could show off a bit more at this point but I’ll leave that (sort of) for another blog. But keep reading because this last part is really, really important.

We continued to refine and develop and tweak what we were doing and I continued to research different reading schemes and approaches, but to be honest I found very little out there which I thought could even come close to competing with the scale of what my team was doing. It was, and I am sure continues to be, transformative.

Then I read up on ThinkingReading. The outcomes achieved by this organisation made my own efforts look amateurish to say the least. If I had my time back (and I’d known about it) I would have been in touch with Dianne Murphy (@ThinkReadTweet) like a shot. If you are in the position I was in get in touch with her now!

If you want to know the ins and outs of anything I’ve mentioned or want to nick some resources please get in touch.

Hope this helps.

Thanks for reading


Welsh Lessons: Judging a book by its cover

I am going to write a series of blogs on this issue partly to clear up some misconceptions and partly to help fellow colleagues who may find themselves in charge of literacy intervention in their school. It’s been a year since I gave up the role of Literacy Coordinator and moved  on to another school and in that time I’ve seen a number of Twitter spats over reading, which tend to lead fellow professionals to the following conclusions:

Secondary Tweachers: “Some kids come up to us and they can’t read well enough…ALL PRIMARY SCHOOLS ARE RUBBISH! ALL THEY DO IS COLOUR IN AND PLAY WHEN THESE KIDS CAN’T READ!!!”

Primary Tweachers: “Patronising secondary teachers! -they have no idea what they are talking about. NO WONDER THEIR EXPECTATIONS ARE SO LOW AND PUPILS DO SO MUCH WORSE AT KS3!!!”

So I thought I’d clear up a few things…

1.       Is there a national problem with reading?

The answer to the above question is, quite frankly, ridiculous, because the truth is…

 We. Don’t. Actually. Know.

Just let that sink in for a minute.

Despite all the tests we don’t actually know how many pupils can read fluently enough to fully access the secondary curriculum before they arrive at secondary school. That’s why so many secondary schools invest in standardised reading tests, firstly to screen and target pupils for more diagnostic testing and then to provide extra support. Because they don’t actually know beforehand who can read fluently and who can’t.

You’d think it would then be easy enough to find out wouldn’t you? I mean just collate the data from the NGRT or Suffolk or LASS or WRAT standardised reading tests right? But not every secondary school even does screening tests and you just know if this data was collected nationally then it would very quickly be added as part of the accountability stick. I have already seen some schools “game” these tests a little. For example if you want to “evidence” (shudder) more progress in reading to make yourself look good on paper you could shove a load of nervous Y7 into the sports hall in September and give reading tests where you have to fill in those lotto type lozenges. Then when you retest the same, now more confident Y7, you could do it in a classroom in May or June and hand mark it so pupils can just write or circle answers.

Apart from this obvious problem these reading tests are all slightly different. The Suffolk test for example is more a test of vocabulary and literal sentence level comprehension whereas NGRT assesses inference to a greater extent. The Welsh National Reading Tests are actually more tests of general knowledge, vocabulary and common sense than reading. In fact I’ve seen a boy who couldn’t decode very well outperform fluent readers in some parts of this test because he knew a lot and could guess well. The same sort of problem exists with SATs. They might give you an indication of which pupils are better at responding to texts, but they don’t actually tell you which pupils can decode fluently or not. Or to what extent. I wouldn’t even say that they are very useful for screening a year group because they can just reveal how well a school teaches to the test.

That is not to say we have no information on how well children read. What we have are various sources which could suggest that 15-20% of pupils arrive at secondary school significantly behind in their reading.

So where does that leave us?

Well I can’t tell you about a national problem because I don’t really know what that is exactly. As a secondary English teacher and former literacy coordinator I’m certainly not an expert in how well primary schools are teaching reading nationally. I would have to be a ridiculous egoist or idiot to believe that. However I can certainly tell you about the reading difficulties that I measured and dealt with in the area I have taught in.

In 2010 I was tasked with taking over Literacy intervention at the excellent comprehensive I had been teaching at since I qualified. The school used a combination of the Suffolk standardised reading test and a really old BSTS standardised reading test to screen for literacy difficulties and target support. An average of 30% of pupils arrived in Y7 with a reading or spelling age below 10 and were therefore given some form of extra support. On average 22% of the cohort were what we considered “significantly behind” with a reading or spelling age below 9.5 according to these tests. Here is a summary of some of the reading entry data I collected over 5 years.

  It is always important to see these sorts of figures in relation to cohort size.

Y7        87/262 pupils (33%) below 9 years 6 months 108/262 pupils (41%) below 10

Y8        54/262 pupils (21%) below9 years 6 months 66/262 pupils (25%) below 10

Y9        47/214 pupils (22%) below 9 years 6 months 65/214 pupils (30%) below 10

Y10      64/270 pupils (24%) below 9 years 6 months 72/270 pupils (27%) below 10

Y11      63/274 pupils (23%) below 9 years 6 months 68/270 pupils (25%) below 10


When I took over literacy intervention I used the Hodder Standardised Spelling test instead of the old BSTS test we were using because I felt it was better. I also introduced a 1:1 reading test – The Salford Sentence Reading Test- to assess how well pupils who we targeted could decode.

On average 12-15% (30 -40 pupils) had difficulties in decoding according to this test.

You can see that we were dealing with major difficulties and you can see clearly that the Y7 who had just arrived had significantly more problems than any of the other year groups I dealt with. Why? I don’t know. But I have my suspicions and I will come to that in a future blog. I will also tell you about the remarkable job my team did teaching all these pupils to read well in a very short time.

So is there a problem? Well of course I think so, because this was my experience, but I certainly can’t tell you if this is the same nationally, because I don’t know. It would also be incredibly short sighted of me to just claim the entire primary sector in my area was rubbish. Some of the pupils I taught had barely attended a variety of primary schools. You can be the best primary teacher in the world, but you can’t teach a child to read who isn’t there. I also can’t claim no teacher is at fault. Some of these pupils who couldn’t decode, had been in school and behaved well, and had been let down badly. Just because there are a lot of great primary schools out there with excellent teachers, that doesn’t mean there are no primary schools and teachers who are simply not doing a good enough job of teaching pupils to read.

Thanks for reading.

Superteacher Syndrome

When you entered the teaching profession did you imagine you would be Robin Williams from Dead Poet’s Society? Perhaps you thought you would be that so amazingly inspirational that children would pray open mouthed at the alter of you. Did you think you’d be one of those characters who walked into the class and immediately gained the adoration of all?

Did you believe you were a bit magic?

You did, didn’t you.

The thing is teaching can seem a bit magical to the untrained eye. I remember, when I was an NQT, my first Head walking into a communal area full of unruly teenagers and silencing all by looking over the top of his spectacles (Darth Vader wishes he had the gravitas of TEL Jones). Then he just uttered, “Stack up your bags and sit down quietly.” And all of them did just that. As an NQT I was in awe, in the same way that you might be in awe of a magician who’d just managed to catch a bullet between his teeth or levitated a sea lion in front of you.

What we must remember is that, in fact, this is an illusion. Mr Jones was not magic. To perform this seemingly miraculous feat he had spent years and years building a system- a system built on rules and a stubborn resilient determination – a system built and maintained and improved with other people. Because one man cannot perform this magic. Not even if you do have Sith Lord levels of authority.

Now I can silence classes with a look. I do not yet have the gravitas of a Sith Lord, but I can get there I think. I have built up an impressive record. Pupils beat their target grades in my classes and my literacy team gets pupils, who have felt like failures or given up or have been given up on,  to read and succeed – we transform the lives of some pupils in this way.

I know this feeling. I’ve taught pupils, who have been totally given up on, to be real successes. My ego expands.

Because of this a reputation builds. An ex pupil told someone recently, “If you don’t learn in Mr Williams’ class you just aren’t listening.” Other pupils seem to behave as if I am magic. “I would never have passed if I had not been in your class Mr Williams.”

My ego expands. At this point I may start believing in my own mythology. – “I save illiterate kids. I get pupils GCSEs. I am chocolate. I am Superteacher!”

My ego can barely fit through the door.


In my heart of hearts I know, like all magic tricks, this is an illusion. There is no such thing as a Superteacher. The quality of my instruction depends on the quality of the pupils’ behaviour and the quality of the pupils’ effort. These things are built by not only me, but also parents, other teachers, heads of year, SLT, peers, sometimes youth workers, sometimes social workers, sometimes counsellors, sometimes LSAs  and  of course the choices of pupils themselves.

Believing I am Superteacher would be good for my ego. It would make me feel extra special, but it is also a dangerous mythology: it encourages the erroneous idea that teaching is not about the collective but the individual; that we don’t need to challenge or change systematic failure- just hire better teachers – more Superteachers; that schools don’t need more resources or time just to sack bad lazy teachers and hire good hardworking Superteachers instead.

I also know I am only as good if I continue to build and improve upon all of these things. Perhaps that’s the underlying cause of the joy and anxiety and stress in teaching – that knowledge that yes I did it last year, but this class provides a new context, this pupil a different challenge, these colleagues managers or parents a different outlook on what my job should be – of what it means to be Superteacher.

The truth is I’m not Superteacher and neither are you. It’s just a trick. We are not really magic. Those hard yards you put in with pupils patiently repeating, practising, explaining, disciplining can seem like walking through treacle. Those are the things people forget you did when they look back on you as their own saviour of the school, their very own educational superhero.

We shouldn’t forget that stuff though.

That’s the stuff the “magic” is made from.

Welsh Lessons

On a bright spring morning, Mr Matthews, my GCSE Business Studies teacher, explained, “You can’t have a bonus system in every job. Imagine, for example, if a judge were paid on the basis of the amount of years he sentenced prisoners to. Ridiculous. Imagine the amount of unfair fines that could be issued if traffic wardens were on commission? This is because a key aspect of these jobs is fairness.”

Which, in a nutshell, is why teacher assessment is a terrible idea.

You don’t even need to guess at what might happen, because in Wales it already has.

Wales abolished SATs because they were seen as not only inaccurate but also expensive when you can just use teacher assessment. I remember at the time thinking it was great. Our year nine scheme of work basically consisted of practising past papers which, to be frank, was a miserable thing to do. From now on we could base levels on the far more interesting work we did all year round. Y9 would become the “nice” year we’d heard about from older teachers,before the stressful GCSE years. I remember my head at the time assured us all that this was in fact a terrible idea, but did we listen? 

To be honest, at first it was quite good. We still did old SATs as an end of year exam, but we were better than the exam board at pinpointing where within a level a pupil was (“Well yes Johnny did get a level 5 in the exam, but I know he doesn’t really understand speech marks.”) With no exam lots of teachers just gave their honest opinion about what level a pupil had achieved based on their year’s work and initially I’d argue this judgement was more accurate than the increasingly inflated test scores.

The problem came when this judgement was lower than what was achieved in the previous exams.

It turns out that whilst politicians like saving money, they don’t like results going down AT ALL. So pressure filtered down on teachers to improve levels. In fact some quite ridiculous pressure was applied to some y9 and y6 teachers. Results had to go up. Targets were issued. The big accountability stick was raised. Teachers found ways of producing evidence of level 4 and level 5 so they could meet the next target.

Like water leaking from a broken pipe levels therefore rose.

Then a little more pressure and competition driving up the numbers. If a pupil got level 4 in y6 they must get at least level 5 in y9 if not level 6. If that school in your family were getting 80% you had to get 83% or face being in quartile 4.

Levels therefore rose.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Now there are secondary schools who have achieved 90% Level 5 in Year 9 and, with the same pupils, only 60% at GCSE. In fact if your levels are within ten per cent of your GCSE results you are probably in the bottom quartile of the schools in your “family”. 

Now I know pupils given level 4 at the end of KS2 with reading ages of 8. (Of course these pupils MUST then get Level 5 in year 9 because otherwise they will have made “no progress”).

Schools and teachers who are rigorous and scrupulous with levels are in the bottom quartiles of their families. Schools and teachers who have buckled to the pressure must feel like frauds. Some parents are gobsmacked when they hear their children are going to have intensive intervention because they can’t decode fluently: “But they got a level 4 in y6!”

Having teacher assessment with the current systems of accountability is, I think, like giving a pupil their GCSE exam unsupervised, telling them to mark it themselves, reminding them that a poor result could drastically affect their future and telling them, “Now don’t cheat! We’ll be checking.”

It might surprise the more cynical but lots of pupils would mark their own exams fairly…at least at first. But then every time a compatriot gave themselves an extra mark or two the pressure for them to do the same would grow. And each year the pressure to do better would increase a little more and more would begin to crack.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Teacher assessment in Wales: bad for teachers, bad for parents and bad for pupils.

On standardised reading tests and why pupils should take GCSEs in September

So in troops the Y7 – you think you’ve grouped them well – I mean you liaised with all the primary schools and you did induction day and you looked at the levels so now what do you do? Tests. Yes CATS tests yes hmm? Perhaps a little standardised reading test? And where? In the Gym? You give them sheets with little lottery slip type lozenges so they can be sent off and marked by a computer- and then you’ll have reading ages and standardised scores and graphs, yes graphs I tell you, and it will all look mightily scientific and impressive. 200 perhaps slightly nervous year sevens doing unfamiliar tests, in an unfamiliar way, in unfamiliar surroundings- what could go wrong? Yes doing a test after the summer holidays when some won’t have picked up a book or a pen for six weeks may show they are not as good as the levels suggest, but then it will be their real ability won’t it? In fact that will be a really true reflection of how they’ve sustained their progress won’t it. In fact we should suggest all exams happen after the summer holidays. No one would question the validity of the next new GCSEs then eh?
Gosh the reading ages are low aren’t they?! Look at all those below their chronological age? Look at all those below ten? The levels don’t look quite so reliable now do they? Should we adjust the staff targets in line? No of course not. WE MUST MAINTAIN OUR HIGH EXPECTATIONS.
You will retest their reading using the same test same time same place next year right? To measure impact over a year? That’s a year – September to September. Although the new year Y8s won’t be as nervous as they were in year 7 you’ll want to keep the test conditions as similar as possible. You learned that in GCSE Science – fair testing and all that. I mean you wouldn’t ever, say, test in May or July?..
Oh you do? In June…to “show the impact of your teaching and allow you to prepare for those who need continued support next year”. I see. Well, of course, I mean, you want the pupils to show themselves at their best. I mean nobody would ever do their GCSEs after the summer holidays after some of them haven’t picked up a book or a pen for six weeks. Ha! Ha! Ridiculous idea.

This month’s #BlogSyncEnglish : Beginnings. Join in and write a blog using the hashtag.

Factory Teaching: Stack ‘em High, Teach ‘em Cheap.

2nd time lucky


Where I grew up in Rhyl in North Wales, local youngsters would buy quite clapped out Ford Escorts and do them up. The Ford would cost as little as £300 at the time but they would spend thousands and thousands over the years on exhausts the size of dustbins and huge wing like spoilers, subwoofers, and new paintjobs. I never really understood it, because at the end of the day they still had a Ford Escort. No matter what colour they painted it or how much they added, it was never going to be as good as just saving for a bit and buying a better car to begin with. I sometimes think politicians have a lot in common with the young people I grew up with in Rhyl…
I am sure we are all used to being asked to jump through the next government hoop without extra time or…

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Factory Teaching: Stack ‘em High, Teach ‘em Cheap.

Where I grew up in Rhyl in North Wales, local youngsters would buy quite clapped out Ford Escorts and do them up. The Ford would cost as little as £300 at the time but they would spend thousands and thousands over the years on exhausts the size of dustbins and huge wing like spoilers, subwoofers, and new paintjobs. I never really understood it, because at the end of the day they still had a Ford Escort. No matter what colour they painted it or how much they added, it was never going to be as good as just saving for a bit and buying a better car to begin with. I sometimes think politicians have a lot in common with the young people I grew up with in Rhyl…
I am sure we are all used to being asked to jump through the next government hoop without extra time or resources, but you may not know there is an actual rationale behind this. You see they found that when government provided schools with the means and ends, whatever they were trying to introduce became a huge bureaucratic nonsense. If government provided means without ends (Yes they have done this) it led to perceived waste, because people spent the funding on stuff the government didn’t like/understand/value. So they decided that the best thing to do would be to provide ends without means. Essentially they left it up to schools to figure out how to jump through the next hoop. And if they didn’t?- well there was always special measures. When I heard ends without means extolled as an example of good government at the launch of a government initiative a few years ago I actually laughed out loud, to the quizzical looks of some government officials. In the ends without means scenario what happens is that schools try to make up for the lack of government resources, knowledge and competence by working harder, and at the expense of other things – like sanity for example.
A certain type of politician thinks the ends without means idea is wonderful, because it means they can cut resources whilst demanding higher standards with a clear conscience. There’s just one problem with it really: it is entirely unsustainable.
Let me give you just one example of this. A head teacher is asked to make quite substantial cuts, whilst at the same time the expectation for results goes up. Choices are limited in this scenario, choices which to be fair, the head makes clear:
• Cut departmental budgets
• Increase pupil numbers
• Cut teacher non-contact time to the bare minimum
• Make redundancies
In terms of redundancies he is pretty lucky; a number of older staff are due to retire and one by one these colleagues are replaced by cheaper, younger staff. This isn’t some insane mass culling of vital experience and expertise either so the values that make the school successful are, largely, sustained.
For practical subjects like Art and DT whose budgets are spent on the actual materials needed to do the subject (like inks and paints and wood) teaching more pupils with less money is.. er..interesting. For the rest largely it means cutting photocopying, buying fewer books, buying cheaper books, even cheaper paper and pens. You can manage with stuff like this as a teacher. It only really gets tough when you have to start sharing classrooms. Believe it or not teaching Science in a History classroom can be challenging, not just because you have to hoik all your stuff all over the school and make sure the pupils remember which class they’re in this week, but also because you are in someone else’s teaching environment – suited for their pedagogy, for their subject.
So, less time, less space and less experience, but… Results. Still. Go. Up.
Well, the staff reduce courses down to what pupils need to get at least a grade C, produce model answers for pupils to learn off by heart, and spend more time after school with more pupils, more time in the holidays with more target groups (this is where those younger childless colleagues come in quite handy).
In short they sacrifice quality: quality of home life; quality of classrooms; quality of materials; quality of content; and in the worst cases quality of mental health.
But that’s OK right?- because it’s “cheaper”. Well do you know what? – it really, really isn’t. In the long term it costs A LOT more. It’s like reducing your shopping bill by eating cheap frozen ready meals every day. OK so the food doesn’t look exactly like the picture on the front, but appearances can be deceptive right? Your belly feels full and you even feel satisfied by the additives used to make up for actual real ingredients. In the long term does anybody really think their body won’t pay a far bigger price by doing this?
Tristram Hunt claims he wants to put an end to “exam factories”. I hope (probably naively) he means to end the financial push towards a “stack em high teach em cheap” education. I’m not naïve enough to believe schools could or even should be given a blank cheque – public servants have a moral responsibility to provide value for money- but the ends without means myth must be exposed for the nonsense it is.
You can add as many spoilers and exhausts as you like to that Ford Escort, you can repaint it and give it the loudest sound system in the world, but it’s never going to be as good as a Ferrari no matter how many ends you ask for.
If you want a Ferrari you have you pay for it.

Teaching reading


Teaching Reading

This is my first ever blog. It stems from a tirade on Twitter against an SEN specialist who had the temerity to announce he was going to teach English GCSE without actually having an English degree and then he asked for help. How dare he? Didn’t he know he wasn’t qualified? Well do you know what?- he may be far more qualified than the majority of secondary English teachers at least when they begin.

The reality( in my opinion and only based on my experience) is that secondary English teachers are not trained to teach reading from the level many SEN pupils begin with and indeed there is real confusion about reading in general. Take the tests that are carried out quite routinely by secondary schools to assess reading ages on entry. Even if the school is sensible enough to explain that a reading age of ten is…

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