Phonics: more meet expected standard but ‘narrow’ test criticised

There has been a slight rise in the proportion of Year 1 pupils reaching the expected standard in phonics, according to new figures from the Department for Education (DfE). The results of this year’s phonics screening check showed 82 per cent of pupils met the standard, up from 81 per cent a year earlier. When the phonics screening check was introduced in 2012, the proportion of pupils meeting the expected standard was 58 per cent. However, the percentage of children who achieved full marks in the check dropped this year, standing at 13 per cent compared to 16 per cent in 2017. The screening check requires pupils to read aloud a list of 40 words, half of which are nonsense words. Pupils who do not meet the expected standard in Year 1 retake the phonics check in Year 2 – this year 92 per cent of that group had reached the required standard.

When the results of this year’s phonics screening check were broken down by ethnic group, gender and free school meals (FSM) eligibility, there were some significant variations. The lowest attaining group was white boys eligible for FSM, with 62 per cent meeting the expected standard, though this represented a 2 percentage point increase in attainment among this group compared to 2017. The highest performing group was Chinese girls not eligible for FSM. There were also geographical variations, with the London region having the highest percentage of pupils achieving the expected standard overall. Within the South East region, the local authorities with the highest percentage of pupils reaching the expected standard were Bracknell Forest, Slough, Windsor & Maidenhead and Wokingham (all at 86 per cent), with Portsmouth having the lowest percentage (79 per cent).

Commenting on the results Nick Gibb, the schools standards minister, said ‘Our continued focus on raising standards means six-year-olds are reading better than ever before – and we are setting an international benchmark, with Australia looking to follow our lead on phonics.’, adding, ‘This is a huge achievement, improving the lives and education of hundreds of thousands of children but we remain determined to make sure that not just most children, but every single child is able to meet his or her potential.’

In contrast, Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU) responded ‘The government continues to confuse accuracy in decoding words with fluency in reading. They are not the same thing, and Nick Gibb's claim that synthetic phonics is putting children on track to be fluent readers has no basis in research.’ Dr Bousted continued ‘Ministers celebrate minor shifts in test scores, without seeing that the confusion of testing a narrow set of skills with learning a rich and complex set of skills continues to create problems for our children’.

Wendy Scott, from the primary assessment campaign group More Than A Score, also commented on the DfE’s announcement, saying ‘Heads, teachers and parents agree: the phonics check is a waste of extremely valuable teaching time. Rather than learning to love reading, five and six-year-olds are spending months being drilled in nonsense words just so they can be tested.’

The full provisional results of the 2018 phonics screening checks, as well as provisional results from national curriculum assessments at Key Stage 1 can be found at

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