The schools minister is looking at the results of a major international reading test wrong, and his dogmatic insistence on teaching children to read with phonics is a sham, argues the NEU’s Kevin Courtney

Overwhelmed by problems of teacher supply and faced with rising evidence of the effects of funding cuts, it’s understandable that Nick Gibb makes much of the performance of English nine-year-olds in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).

For him, it’s a good-news story. England’s mid-table rise in the PIRLS table is proof that the government’s relentless emphasis on one teaching method, synthetic phonics, has paid off. It gives the schools minister a platform from which to denounce “those who have stood in the way of evidence-based phonics” as “responsible for stifling human potential and negatively affecting the life chances of countless children”.

But before accepting such big claims, we should look at what the PIRLS scores are actually telling us. A different story soon emerges:

~ England’s improvement from 2011 to 2016 is only half as good as the improvement in the previous five years.

~ It is only half the improvement as the scores of Irish children. Without the benefit of Gibb’s phonics, Ireland has moved further ahead of England.

~ England’s score is lower than that of Northern Ireland, but if Gibb cares to look at Northern Ireland’s primary curriculum, he won’t find synthetic phonics mentioned at all.

When we examine the English data in detail, new problems appear. A helpful scatterplot on page 65 of the DfE’s report on PIRLS shows that there is only a moderate correlation between children’s PIRLS scores and their phonics check scores several years earlier.

Large numbers of children are declared failures in their year 1 phonics check but go on to become successful readers, and large numbers of pupils who pass the phonics check are graded poor readers in PIRLS at age 10.

A sober reading of these findings might have concluded that England may have something to learn from other countries with different approaches and better success. That isn’t where Gibb wishes to go; for him it’s synthetic phonics all the way.

A dogmatic attachment to one approach restricts teachers

It is a serious weakness of the English education system that a minister’s preferences work all the way down to classroom level, and down even to one-to-one teaching. It is particularly a problem when those preferences are, as in Gibbs’ case, not well informed.

The minister is fond of talking about “evidence”, but in fact the evidence around effectiveness in the teaching of reading points not towards a single focus on synthetic phonics, but towards a diversity of approaches. As the minister’s advisers must have told him, systematic reviews of research have concluded repeatedly that teachers should consider a range of methods. A dogmatic attachment to one approach restricts teachers, and will not be helpful for many groups of learners.

In the case of England, we have just one method, established in the teachers’ standards, policed by the phonics check, extolled by the minister. This is not a way to develop teachers’ skills, and a bad way to support children.

Gibb should step back, then, from discussing the teaching of reading. But in other ways, he needs to become very much more active.

The PIRLS report identifies a horrifying situation about which the minister has nothing to say: 25 per cent of the cohort tested by PIRLS reported arriving at school feeling hungry every day or almost every day. This had a considerable negative effect on their reading results: they had an average of 534 points, compared with 579 for those who said they were never hungry at school.

We know that under Gibb’s government this situation is going to get worse and child poverty levels are rising. It is staggering that the minister devotes his time to imposing teaching methods on schools rather than responding to a crisis which will a lasting, deep and damaging effect on children’s learning.

Kevin Courtney is joint general secretary of the National Education Union