A letter to Jeremy Miles, the new Minister for Education
Rob Randel, primary school teacher and Wales Advisor to the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction
Terry Mackie, former Head of School Improvement and Inclusion for Newport Council
Dear Jeremy Miles,
Llongyfarchiadau on your promotion to Minister of Education in the new government. To help you settle in we are sending you some required reading on… reading. We hope that this will be especially helpful on developing your early priorities.
Question: looking ahead twenty years, what is the single biggest risk factor for attainment standards to improve for Welsh schools? (Don’t worry about the forthcoming exams fiasco; you can blame your Lib Dem predecessor.) More pandemics? Even less money to spend on schools? Climate change? Deepening inequality? The last one is getting warm.
It’s what it has always been, even before devolution: low literacy standards nationally (in Welsh and English), primarily caused by poor reading skills for about a third of our learners. Far too many of our primary pupils still pass through the system functionally incapable of accessing the curriculum.
And the main cause of this educationally and economically debilitating deficit? Failure after failure of government policy over decades about the effective teaching of reading, its professional support and training and complacency by Estyn.
But surely, you say, all this is being put right by Curriculum for Wales (CfW), due to be implemented from September 2022? Very sorry, but it could make things worse. This curriculum has no mandates on methodologies. As for content and topics, it will be irrelevant for about 33% of learners whether Welsh history (of which BAME history is an essential part) is mandatory or not; secondary students with a reading age of seven years have little ability to engage with teaching about apartheid or the industrial revolution.
How bad are things actually? We just don’t know, not even ‘ballpark’. Wales does not collect intelligible data on reading either for accountability or comparison purposes. Wales eschews all international studies (except PISA, which is an international age 15 years benchmark). The Literacy and Numeracy Framework (2012) provides no national data.
Estyn is little help. It said in 2012 that “40% of pupils cannot read as well as they should as they start secondary school and some never catch up.” But in a 2021 report it professes that “by the end of the foundation phase, many learners (90%) achieve suitable fluency and expression in their reading.” That’s remarkable progress…..if it were true. Which it is not. How does Estyn know this? Did they measure words correct per minute by pupil? This is guesswork. Without data or comparisons, this is the equivalent of sticking its finger in the air year after year.
Successive PISA comparisons reveal that the dial has been pretty much stuck for Wales for 15 years, though the 2018 results for those tested in Welsh should be viewed with special concern, which I know will be of real concern to you. The Foundation Phase (3-7 years) has been a flop for the development of reading.
Only Professor Chris Taylor and his Cardiff University team of researchers have dared to say the unsayable: the huge investment in Early Years education reaps no improvement in outcomes for disadvantaged learners at the end of Key Stage 2 and “some of these structural inequalities are actually worsening”. Taylor later warned that the Curriculum for Wales could well turn out worse for our large numbers of disadvantaged pupils.
You may be wondering now, why does Wales have a chronic reading problem? Generally, about two-thirds of children will learn to read despite the insufficient instruction they receive. They may still have misconceptions in their understanding about how our writing system works, but they have worked it out and pieced it together for themselves. What about the other third of learners? They go into Key Stage 2 identified as needing ‘reading intervention’.
At this critical point, what they need is an expert reading teacher to check what gaps they have in their understanding of the alphabetic code. Then that must be followed by the explicit teaching of systematic synthetic phonics (better late than never) to correct the gaps identified. But, tragically, what they get is a doubling down on more mixed approaches and ineffective strategies that compound their misunderstandings. These children then start and continue secondary school with serious reading deficits that block meaningful access to the 11-16 curriculum.
Some good news: a tremendous amount has been learned about the science of reading since 1999 but it passed by Professor Graham Donaldson’s 2015 curriculum review (which fathered CfW). He speciously asserted that the stubbornly high proportion of young people in Welsh schools whose performance was low is related largely to “the high degree of prescription and detail in the national curriculum”. Donaldson missed the elephant in the primary classroom.
The CfW, which he designed, goes right down this rabbit hole, with its guidance to teachers reflecting that systematic phonics is something important that teachers should be ‘aware of’ but it is for the individual teacher to work out when it is “appropriate for a learner”. Estyn endorses CfW unreservedly. Wales, past, present and future, prefers alchemy to the science of reading.
The Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) route taken by other countries for the teaching of reading has been, in stark contrast, evidence-based, supported by extensive professional training and crystal clear that in the Year 1 programme of study children will be taught to apply phonic knowledge and skills as the route to decode words in the first instance. Nothing is being left to chance. No ‘pick and mix’.
The outcomes in countries like England are extremely favourable: the proportion of pupils who met the phonics standard in year 1 increased year-on-year from 58% in 2012 to 82% in 2019. There are schools in areas of London with high levels of social deprivation scoring 100% six years in a row on the national Phonics Screening Check. Reading attainments at Key Stages 1 and 2 are on upward curves.
What is to be done to get every Welsh child reading properly? Build on the robust practice in SSP already to be found in a few of our best schools. They are providing high-quality, content-rich systematic synthetic phonics routines and provision. Previously taught letter‐sound correspondences are reviewed daily and new letter-sound correspondences are introduced daily. This all takes time as well as expertise. The token 20 minutes most of our schools currently devote to ‘phonics’ is symptomatic of their lack of technical understanding.
Three big changes now need to happen in Wales. Firstly we must now embrace that SSP has been validated as the best model for the effective teaching of reading for all children and adopt it in the CfW. Secondly, it is crucial that everyone involved in the teaching of reading receives the best training about SSP mechanics and processes. Thirdly, how will teachers and parents know that the agreed model and teacher training are making the right impact? We need an annual national Phonics Screening Check, of course.
The Foundation Phase and The Literacy Framework are failing so many learners. Curriculum for Wales as it stands will not boost reading standards. It really doesn’t have to be like that under your ministry. It’s not rocket science. The science of reading is far more important than that.
Rob Randel and Terry Mackie
Terry Mackie’s 2019 book ‘The Slow Learning Country: Out of the dim into the light’ is available by contacting him at email@example.com. Rob Randel is an experienced primary teacher in the south Wales and is the Wales Advisor to the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction.