The achievement gap in phonics has grown between pupils qualifying for free school meals and their wealthier peers, government data has revealed.

In this summer’s exams, 68 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals met the expected standard in phonics, compared with 84 per cent of all other pupils.

This marked a one-percentage-point increase in the attainment gap this year* compared with 2016, reversing the previous trend.

Between 2015 and 2016, the gap between FSM pupils and all others narrowed by one percentage point, and a similar decrease was recorded in 2014 and 2015.

But the government’s release on the phonics screening check and key stage 1 assessments in England for 2017 showed the performance of FSM-eligible pupils decreased from 69 per cent in 2016 to 68 per cent this year, while the performance of all other pupils increased from 83 per cent last year to 84 per cent this year.

“It is very worrying that the statutory assessment system appears to be entrenching disadvantage for pupils entitled to free school meals, SEND or who happen to be boys,” said Nansi Ellis, a policy expert at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

“As school budgets are slashed and vital support is removed from our most vulnerable learners, it is only getting harder for schools to challenge these stubborn achievement gaps and deliver social justice for all pupils.”

Overall, the proportion of year 1 pupils meeting the “expected standard” in phonics remained static at 81 per cent this year. The rate of pupils passing at the end of year 2 rose slightly, by one point from 91 to 92 per cent.

But the Education Endowment Foundation said the reversal is “worrying”.

“We know that a good grasp of phonics is crucial for supporting younger readers to master the basics of reading,” said a spokesperson. “Educational prospects for pupils who don’t achieve good literacy skills by the end of primary school are bleak. The best way to close the gap and improve literacy levels for all is through better use of evidence: looking at what has – and has not – worked in the past.”

Schools minister Nick Gibb praised “the hard work of teachers across the country”, but added “there is more to do for the youngest children”.

“As we said in our manifesto, we will strengthen the teaching of literacy and numeracy in the early years,” he said.

In the key stage 1 tests, pupil performance rose across reading, writing, maths and science, according to teacher assessment data, with a bump of two percentage points in both reading and maths.

Reading results rose to 76 per cent, while maths rose to 75 per cent.

Writing results trailed other subjects, as in previous years. Only 68 per cent met the expected standard, though this was an increase of three percentage points on last year.

Free schools again demonstrated the strongest performance of all types of school across reading, writing, maths and science. They were followed by converter academies, then local authority maintained schools and sponsored academies.


The numbers provided in the data show the attainment gap for FSM-eligible pupils in 2017 as 16 percentage points, and in 2016 as 14, but the DfE has informed us that this gap has increased by only one percentage point this year, because of rounding.

The department would not provide us with the unrounded numbers, but we have worked through an example to show this is possible. 

If, for example, the 84 per cent of all non-FSM pupils who achieved the expected standard this year was in fact 83.5 in the unrounded figures, and the 68 per cent of FSM pupils who achieved the expected standard was 68.4 unrounded, the attainment gap between FSM and non-FSM pupils would be 15.1 this year.

This would mean a rounded results of 1 percentage point increase compared to the attainment gap of 14 percentage points last year.

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