Phonics test: changing pedagogy through assessment

Alice Bradbury

If you want to change what teachers teach, should you change the curriculum, or change the assessment? For the last three years, all six-year-olds in England have had to take a Phonics Screening Check test, which they can either pass or fail. The introduction of this test by the coalition government was controversial, as there is much debate over the use of phonics in the teaching of reading. This year’s results have just been heralded as a victory for phonics as a greater proportion of children passed. However, if we look back at the evolution of this policy, as I have done in a paper presented last week at BERA and soon to be published in the Oxford Review of Education, we can see that the purpose of the Phonics Screening Check has always been surrounded by confusion.

In this study, I explore the changing aims of the Screening Check in the government’s rhetoric, from initial idea in a Conservative Party conference speech in 2009, to the realisation of the policy in legislation. This ‘policy genealogy’ approach, focusing on one part of the policy ‘trajectory’, seeks to ask: which ideas become truth through policy, and whose ideas are included or excluded?

The main finding of this research is the confusion of aims of this ‘reading test’ in speeches and the Conservative manifesto of 2010. In opposition, Michael Gove stated in a conference speech that children who struggled to read were “overwhelmingly, likely to be the difficult and disruptive pupils in class, […] likely to be the truants, the recruits for street gangs, the children who have given up on hope and become trapped in defiance”. To “save these young lives” there would be a renewed focus on reading, including a ‘simple reading test’. By the time of the manifesto, the aim of the reading test, now on phonics only, was to reassure parents that ‘their child is making progress’. Over time, the test’s stated purpose changed. I argue that this is because the test’s main purpose is not to reassure parents or prevent children joining gangs, but to hold teachers to account for their teaching of reading.

By the time of the public consultation in 2011, there was considerable opposition to the phonics test’s form and content. The consultation report found that only 28% of respondents thought the test should be on phonics; teachers in the pilot did not feel it provided anything they could not assess informally; and 91% of teachers surveyed by the teachers’ unions felt it provided no additional information on children’s ability to read. There is also the thorny issue of teachers distorting the test results, as a disproportionate number of children scored just above the (publicly available) pass mark.

As with most statutory tests, the scores have increased each year, from 58% in 2012 to 74% in 2014. What this shows is not that children can read better, but that there has been an increased focus on phonics. Indeed, the initial findings from research I am currently undertaking with my colleague Guy Roberts-Holmes suggest that the pressure of the phonics test has spread down into Reception and even Nursery classes. Much of this increase in the pass rate is simply because teachers have got better at preparing children. For instance, one problem was always that fluent readers were thrown by the non-words used in the test. Now, as another educationalist commented recently, “I know many teachers who now devote a lot of time to teaching children how to read invented words to help them pass the test”. Is this a useful activity? Does it help children “learn to read, so they can read to learn”, to use Gove’s phrase?

So what is this test for? My analysis of the policy trajectory suggests that the confusion of stated aims belies a far more consistent agenda. By creating another statutory test which schools can be judged on, the Coalition government has managed to change what teachers teach, and in turn what is valued within Year 1 classrooms. The spread of accountability continues, even into an area as hotly contested as teaching reading. The current government is well aware of how quickly change can happen when “the assessment tail starts to wag the education dog”, to quote O’Neill.

We are now at exactly the same point in the election cycle as when Gove first proposed the idea of a ‘simple reading test’ at Conservative conference in 2009. Which of the ideas in this year’s speeches will evolve into something which changes what teachers do, and what matters in classrooms?


Conflicts of interest in academy schools are symptoms of a wider malaise

Toby Greany

This post is co-published with The Conversation

As part of its ongoing inquiry into academies and free schools, the Education Select Committee recently published a report that it had commissioned from Jean Scott and me on conflicts of interest in academies.

We found that real and perceived conflicts of interest are common in academy trusts. These range from instances where individuals benefit personally or via their companies from their position in an academy trust, through to more intangible conflicts that do not directly involve money.

Our research was rapid and small-scale, involving a review of existing evidence, an analysis of a sample of academy trust funding documents and interviews with a range of academy leaders.

Our headline findings included that:

• Neither the Education Funding Agency (EFA) nor schools inspectorate Ofsted appear to have sufficient capacity or skills to address the issue.

• Some academy trust boards, often in the newer fast-growing trusts, are constitutionally weak, with too much executive influence and an inappropriate focus on small governing bodies. As a result they are not doing enough to mitigate risks in this area.

• The rules governing conflicts of interest appear to be insufficiently robust. Many of the examples we identified where large sums of money have been paid to organisations with direct links to trustees or executive leaders in academies were legitimate within the current rules. Such payments are allowed if they are “at cost” (in other words, “not-for-profit”), but we could not find evidence of how “at cost” is actually assessed. For example, the Aurora Academies Trust runs four primary schools in East Sussex. Under a licensing deal the trust pays its US parent company, Mosaica Education Inc, about £100,000 a year to use its patented global curriculum (called Paragon). Aurora describes this arrangement as “at cost”. Three Aurora directors have a direct or indirect interest in Mosaica Education. Meanwhile, Ofsted has criticised the curriculum in one school for lacking a local focus.

• Mechanisms to identify and address more intangible conflicts of interest and conflicts in the wider system are almost non-existent. Hopes that the new regional school commissioners – recently set up to monitor academies and free schools – and head teacher boards that sit alongside them, will address these issues are low. There is also a broader sense that the academy system lacks transparency and is overly politicised, from the top down.

Crisis or storm in tea cup?

Whether you see this as a crisis or a storm in a tea cup depends on how you look at it.

One argument is that the crisis has passed: the regulations and systems required to minimise and manage conflicts of interest in academies are now being put into place. Certainly, while the regulations were far too lax in 2010 when the large expansion of academies began, the national framework for financial management and accountability in academies has been strengthened in the past two years. Most of the larger, more established, trusts do appear to be putting stronger systems and controls in place as they develop. Cases of deliberate fraud appear to be rare.

The alternative perspective is that conflicts of interest are simply a symptom of a much wider malaise which requires urgent and far reaching attention. The academisation process has moved too fast with insufficient focus on building the capacity of the system to become “self-improving”.

Oversight from local authorities has been cut while the Education Funding Agency is struggling to keep up. The infrastructure that could have been used to build skills and capacity is also being cut, such as national leadership programmes and training for school business managers supported by the National College for Teaching and Leadership.

Australia going at slower pace

Other school systems are taking a much more measured approach. In our research, we set out how the equivalent of academy converters in Western Australia are assessed and supported. These schools need to demonstrate they have the capacity to use greater autonomy effectively, including that they have strong community endorsement.

Even then there is substantial support through training and the development of a three-year plan that explicitly draws on external expertise. The differences in the pace of change are stark: just 255 schools in Western Australia were granted the status between 2010 and 2013, compared to almost 4,000 schools in England in the same period.

What is to be done?

I do believe that most academy leaders are honourable and that cases of deliberate fraud are rare, so I don’t think we should impose heavy-handed bureaucratic systems that prevent them doing their jobs. But as one interviewee put it:

“Human nature being what it is, there need to be reasonable, non-bureaucratic checks and balances. We need it because this is not a perfect world.”

My worry is that instances of conflicts of interest in academies are actually symptomatic of wider weaknesses in the system. Some academies appear to be losing confidence that they can manage improvement themselves and are turning to the private sector to do it for them. The move by the Academies Enterprise Trust to outsource its non-teaching activities to PricewaterhouseCoopers at a cost of £400m over ten years seems problematic on many levels.

In its most recent report, the think-tank Policy Exchange has argued for a radical expansion of academy chains to encompass all primary schools. In some respects this makes sense. It is a nonsense to have the academy and maintained sectors running in parallel.

But the five-year timescales proposed for this are far too short. For any such approach to work it would need long-term capacity building: for example, through programmes to develop executive headteachers, governors and high-calibre school business managers, alongside thoughtful work to make sub-regional oversight and scrutiny effective.

As the political parties develop their manifestos ahead of the 2015 general election, it is imperative that they work with school leaders to agree a long-term vision for school and system improvement that recognises the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the current model.

Let’s stand up for subjects

Michael Young and David Lambert

Each curriculum subject contains a different way of understanding the world. Access to this ‘powerful knowledge’ for every pupil should form the basis for any curriculum. This is the central argument of our new book, Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice, which we have written in collaboration with secondary headteacher Carolyn Roberts and former head Martin Roberts.

The book engages directly with and moves beyond the increasingly sterile debate between the former Secretary of State, Michael Gove, with his ticklists of facts, and those of his vociferous antagonists in the education community who argue that process is far more important than content.

Although expressed through subjects, the ‘powerful knowledge’ curriculum bears little relationship to the Gradgrind ‘curriculum of the dead’ that critics of a subject-based curriculum tend to envisage.

Our book draws on recent developments in the sociology of education as well as the experience of current heads and classroom teachers to argue that, far from discriminating against disadvantaged pupils, as many educationists claim, a subject-based curriculum for all pupils up to the age of 16, beginning in the primary school (although the book does not address this explicitly) is the only basis for a more socially just education system. In a modern knowledge economy which will never again employ more than a tiny number of young school leavers, there is no moral or educational case for a differentiated curriculum pre-16.

At a time of acute political uncertainty and with a General Election less than a year way, our book lays down challenges to both major political parties and to the educational community as a whole. The Conservative Party endorses both a subject-based curriculum and “equal opportunities for young people, no matter what their background or family circumstances”. In 2014, few would disagree, at least, in principle. However as long as a significant proportion of schools lack qualified graduate teachers in all the core subjects and therefore the capacity to engage with ‘powerful knowledge’, such an endorsement remains little more than empty rhetoric.

For the Labour Party on the other hand, the challenge is to move from their hesitant defence of comprehensive schools and accept the logic of the principle of comprehensive education – that it implies a comprehensive (common) curriculum for all, at least up to the age of 16.

To the school teachers, the book poses the biggest challenges of all. It asks them to reclaim their professionalism and express it in schools and that are knowledge-led. A re-thought Royal College of Teaching, modeled on the medical colleges, might well be the appropriate way forward. Freed from the heavy hand of the former QCDA and, for many, the constraints of the outgoing National Curriculum, the senior staff of schools and subject departments, in association with subject associations, have the opportunity to assert a new professionalism as curriculum leaders.

Our book seeks to capture a modern version of the vision which, in various forms, has long been part of both Left and Centre educational traditions. It can be traced back to such politically diverse figures as Edward Boyle, Antonio Gramsci and Matthew Arnold. However, our vision will go the way of Michael Gove’s unless we win the hearts and minds of those who can make such a vision a reality.

This book therefore is primarily directed to those senior staff in schools, the subject leaders, and of course the student teachers, who will bear the main responsibility for what we hope will be ‘the future school’ and its knowledge-led curriculum. Without their support, such a vision will easily become little more than a footnote in English educational history.

Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice will be published by Bloomsbury on September 25

What’s so special about running a university?

Paul Temple

Is the management of universities much different to the management of other sorts of big, complex organisations? In my new book, The Hallmark University (IOE Press), I argue that it is (or should be) recognisably different – although the best-run commercial organisations have many things in common with the best-run universities. Accounts of what it’s like working at Google sound a lot like working in a university.

The Institute of Education’s lengthy process of moving towards a merger with University College London (UCL) provides a case in point. It is hard to believe that discussions and consultations would have gone on for so long (two years this September, and counting) in any other type of organisation, public or private. Compare this, for instance, with the tight and precise timescales for takeovers or mergers of listed companies laid down in the Takeover Panel Code (PDF).

You may or may not think that a merger between the Institute and UCL is a good idea, but you can hardly claim that it’s been rushed through at breakneck speed by senior management. Why is this important? In part, it’s because of where knowledge is to be found in the organisation. In universities, the knowledge needed to run the teaching and research enterprise is in the middle and lower layers – universities are what the literature calls bottom-heavy organisations. The key subject knowledges aren’t at the top: the people there are selected on different grounds.

There are many implications in this for the way that universities should be run, and involving ordinary workers in strategic decision-making is one of them. As the American management writer Gary Hamel observes, “in a high-trust, low-fear organisation, employees don’t need a lot of oversight – they need to be mentored and supported, rather than bossed around.” That’s what should happen in good university departments.

Regrettably, I think, some English universities are responding to the more market-based higher education landscape that has emerged over the last few years by creating (probably inadvertently) low-trust, high-fear organisations, with a lot of bossing-around (and firing) of both academic and professional staff. Research, soon to be published, which I’ve carried out with Professor Claire Callender and Dr Natasha Kersh from the Institute, and Lyn Grove from the LSE, shows how some universities are (over-)reacting to the idea of “the student as customer”, stimulated by the new student fee regime, by imposing top-down, strongly centralised, target-oriented cultures because of a sense that they need to be seen to respond to student demands in order to maintain their positions in the marketplace. This won’t end well.

Instead, universities (especially big ones) need to be kept feeling small, with flat hierarchies and what our colleague Professor Michael Shattock calls “a tight turning circle” – that is, the ability to respond quickly to new opportunities or threats. Structures matter here: they need to be decentralised enough to respond to personal circumstances (whether of staff or students) and not to be shackled by bureaucratic rules created merely to ensure uniformity. Different academic departments should be able to meet students’ needs in different ways. People instead need to be trusted to make sensible decisions, which they’re more likely to do if they feel ownership of whatever the problem is, rather than seeing it as just another problem to be decided by central rules.


Election silly season: is research an ornament, a luxury good or ammunition in a war?

Chris Brown

As with many things in our Western consumer culture, research use may be conceived as an act of consumption. Correspondingly, research is often treated by its users as they would a consumer object, much like a coffee maker or television. In the case of educational policy making the research ‘consumer object’ seems to represent one of two perspectives; it is either viewed as a luxury item – with high use value and prestige, or its use is limited and it is primarily employed, much as we employ sparkly trinkets, to distract attention.

The first of these types, research as a luxury good, represents what is traditionally aspired to when we think of ‘evidence-informed’ policy making. This is because its consumption implies one or more of the following: 1) that evidence can and should address a policy issue; 2) the more evidence that can address a policy issue, the better it must be; 3) similarly, the more evidence there is to address an issue then the closer it will be to providing the best available evidence; and/or 4) that those who are high status providers of evidence are in this position because they provide the best (i.e. most convincing and well argued) evidence.

But research might also be thought of as an ornament. For example, within policy-making, notions as to the prestige of being evidence-informed, the value which such prestige adds to the policy debate or, importantly, the fact that someone regarded as a preeminent researcher or expert is supporting a particular position can often and in many ways be more important (i.e. can be more likely to drive consumption) than the use value of the research. So policy-makers may simply reach for any acceptable evidence so that it may be claimed that a policy is evidence-informed.

In such instances policy does not develop in relation to the strength/quality of the argument, but in relation to the perpetuation of a given ideology: i.e. in order to ensure that the political party in power, is re-elected. As such, the role of evidence reverts to that of providing support or to banging a drum in aid of a given course of action. In these types of instances, the main benefit of consuming research, despite any claims of its users, is its ability to support a given perspective or point of view, not to maximise the optimality of policy. In other words evidence is not consumed to help identify some ‘truth’ about the social world, it is there to provide ammunition in an ongoing political war of words between government and others.

So why do I bring this up? As anybody with an interest in the Scottish referendum will attest, as we run up to a crunch point – a time when we need to make a key decision – evidence backing one view or another comes more and more to the fore. For example, currently in Scotland evidence is used by both sides to argue both that ‘there is lots of oil’ and ‘there is not much oil’; that there will be ‘great’ economic turmoil or only a little. There is also a general election looming so we can expect to see much of the same in other policy areas and in particular in education.

So what is to be done? As we move to the election, educational researchers (and indeed social scientists more broadly) need to act as the catalysts for creating and mobilising alternatives discourses. Or in the parlance of consumerism, get our marketing act together more effectively: working to show up the weaknesses of ornamental uses of evidence and to promote full blown luxury research consumption. Now is our time to start selling what we believe in!

Dr Chris Brown’s book, Making Evidence Matter, published by IOE Press, is out now.

What does literacy mean in the 21st Century?

Brian Creese

Today is International Literacy Day. On this day we celebrate the role that literacy plays in our lives. We also reflect on what literacy means to us all, individually, locally, nationally and globally.

There is a marked increase in interest among policy makers about literacy, much of it driven by the OECD’s PIAAC study. Its league tables, ranking countries by the literacy and numeracy proficiency of their working age populations, have attracted welcome policy attention. However, a focus on comparative proficiency levels has limited value. All of the countries involved have uncomfortably large populations of adults with literacy and numeracy skills at or below Level 1. From PIAAC we also know that the make-up of the ‘low-skilled’ population is different in each country – and that provides a more fruitful focus for our attention.

This year UNESCO has a focus on what literacy means in the 21st century. At NRDC we have been engaged with others in the UK and internationally to try and understand both the supply of literacy and numeracy skills among the population, but also the demands placed on their literacy and numeracy skills: in the workplace, at home and in the many other settings in which people engage with an increasingly textual world.

The driving force for policymakers in England is the belief that good literacy is required to improve productivity among the workforce. The IOE’s National Research and Development Centre for Adult Literacy and Numeracy (NRDC) has been working with Ipsos Mori on a study for the Department for Business Innovation and Skills of the impact of English and maths on English employers.

The use of literacy and numeracy skills in the workplace is complex; different jobs, and the various elements within them, involve a range of literacy and numeracy practices, with workers often learning the specific skills they need for their job from peers and co-workers. Employees consistently report that they have adequate skills to do their jobs. What we see in the workplace is that we often work with others in ways that maximize our strengths and allow us to learn from them. We also see how workplaces can be adapted to remove the demand for literacy and numeracy or to scaffold its use.

Despite the policy focus on the workplace, we have continued to work with emergent adult readers on reading for pleasure. Those less confident with their reading may get great joy from reading novels, biographies or other texts in supportive, collaborative environments. They use adult experience and expertise to develop reading confidence, skills and practices gradually and communally – and in doing so are more able to tackle some of life’s other challenges, such as job interviews or finding better heating deals.

If we think about literacy in 2014 we need to consider mobile communications. People who never read a book and may see themselves as non-readers, may happily tap away at a smart-phone or tablet. We have looked at how learners ‘doing’ literacy work on a computer may see it as IT (‘I’m good at that’ ) as opposed to literacy ‘I’m not good at that’. Is reading a page of a book the same as a newspaper as a screen on a PC or screen on a smart phone? And if not, is digital literacy a new form of literacy, or literacy in a new form?

And finally, it’s worth remembering that the NRDC has long been at the avant-garde of Europe’s thinking about adult literacy, and today more than ever, with its leadership role in the new EC-funded European literacy policy network ELINET, is cementing its place as a hub for the sharing of ideas and information with colleagues across Europe. We are not alone in struggling with these problems and the only intelligent way forward is to work with like-minded organisations across the continent and, increasingly, the world.

The underlying idea of International Literacy Day is that the acquisition of literacy is a human right. We would certainly agree with that, and suggest that an important stage on the road to such a noble goal is to increase our understanding of what literacy actually means and involves in the 21st century.


How headteachers are maximising the impact of teaching assistants and getting results

Rob Webster

Recent Government data reveal the rise and rise of teaching assistants. Headcount figures show there are more TAs working in English state-funded primary schools than teachers: 257,300 vs. 242,300. In secondary schools, there are 70,700 TAs to 257,300 teachers.

While these numbers reflect the part-time nature of the role, they strengthen the case for professionalising these valued members of the school workforce.

This year, our SENJIT@IOE team worked with 26 schools in the inaugural Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA) programme, supporting them through a process of rethinking and reforming their use of TAs. MITA is based on the principles and processes set out in our book of the same name, which in turn is based on findings from an extensive research programme.

Through MITA, we present a case for more effective uses of TAs, which schools apply and develop in their own setting. The programme gives school leaders and SENCos dedicated opportunities to think, reflect, discuss and plan, with sessions at the IOE and consultancy visits from an expert MITA Facilitator from the SENJIT team.

Our evaluation of the two-term project, based on feedback from participating schools, found that despite starting from different points, all schools made progress towards understanding and addressing the complex issues of rethinking the TA role and raising their profile in school.

Participants told us one of MITA’s strengths is the way it is structured around a robust evidence-informed framework for decision-making and action, based on empirical research. The framework helped participants appreciate the need for the deep structural changes that the research has revealed is essential if TAs are to have a lasting and meaningful impact on pupil outcomes.

MITA helped school leaders think more broadly about the issues relating to TA deployment, preparedness and their interactions with pupils (the MITA trinity!). Whilst schools identify training for TAs as an area of attention, on its own, it is no sliver bullet. For example, schools recognised that the need for change in relation to improving provision for pupils with SEN extended beyond TAs to improving teachers’ practice.

Indeed, the new Special Educational Needs Code of Practice proved a powerful additional catalyst for change. This is no coincidence; one of MITA’s key aims is, as the Code supports, to encourage schools to develop a role for TAs that begins to break away from what is often called the ‘Velcro’ model of support for pupils with high-level SEN, and which our research has revealed to have unintended consequences.

Instead, MITA schools have been exploring the enormous potential of using TAs to help all pupils develop the essential skills underpinning learning, such as the ability to self-scaffold and ask themselves the questions that help them to get better at getting better at learning.

The broader point here is that understanding why pupils targeted for TA support are negatively affected by the very intervention designed to help them, and how to reverse this situation, is essential if school leaders are to ensure TAs’ contribution to school life seriously counts.

This conclusion is hardly unique. A raft of research attests to why headteachers must drive – not dodge – school workforce issues. So a particularly encouraging outcome of the MITA programme from our point of view (as researchers and course providers) is the way in which headteachers have engaged and committed to doing something positive and potentially transformative for their TA workforce.

The effort is paying off too, as schools began to see the benefits of addressing the key challenge of defining the role, purpose and contribution of TAs within their school.

Given the Government says it has “no plans or any powers” to address issues of TA employment, it is encouraging to see schools seizing the initiative and using the freedoms they have been given to set the agenda. It is still early days, but empowering headteachers in this way might potentially have an even greater payoff.

No jurisdiction in the world has gone as far as the UK in its use of classroom support staff. If we are to realise the Government’s aim of keeping pace with international education systems, TAs’ contribution will be essential. The prize awaiting the UK, then, is to become a world leader in this area.

MITA courses begin at the IOE on 17th November 2014 and 23rd January 2015. To register, email

Visit or the SENJIT website. Follow us on Twitter @maximisingTAs.