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 now 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?