Opinion

A letter to Jeremy Miles, the new Minister for Education

14 May 2021 7 minutes Read
Jeremy Miles AM. Picture: National Assembly

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.

‘Intervention’

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.

Favourable

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.

Boost

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.

Pob lwc,

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 iandtmac@me.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.  

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Mr Williams
Mr Williams
6 months ago

I am a high school teacher. There are many very big problems in education: pupil indiscipline, creaking buildings and equipment and over-assessment being some of the largest. Mr Miles has a very difficult job ahead of him so I sincerely wish him all the best. He is a dedicated, highly principled and hard-working politician so I am very happy that he is taking over education as I am sure he will do his very best.

Terry Mackie
Terry Mackie
6 months ago
Reply to  Mr Williams

Rob Randel and I wish Jeremy Miles well. It’s a tough brief but he’s an experienced, good guy. We hope he prioritises the reading instruction problem we have highlighted. It’s fundamental to improving standards long term.

Mandi A
Mandi A
6 months ago

We could start by erasing the numerous typing and grammatical errors present in the articles on this site. It’s a great shame, as we know from the Guardian pages, the errors are what people see first and the arguments are lost. I used to keep a bookshop. My greatest pleasure was to spend 20-30 minutes with a child who “couldn’t read” according to the accompanying parent or grandparent. “What do you want to go in there for? You can’t read.” They invariably went out reading and clutching a phonics book, no charge. One of the biggest problems perceived by parents… Read more »

Terry Mackie
Terry Mackie
6 months ago
Reply to  Mandi A

Mandi,
Big questions! Bilingualism does not impede literacy per se. Yes, it should enhance things.

My view on home environment/ child/ school effects is that schools can do lots but home environments are where miracles happen. Or not. Why? Child only spends about 1/7th of total time at school.

Sarah Timmins
Sarah Timmins
6 months ago

Very strong opinions in the letter. Totally agree that phonics teaching is not properly endorsed or implemented here but disagree strongly with a phonics check / test at age 5! This is too young. Teachers of y1 across England do not support the phonics check for many valid reasons. Their improving phonics data is achieved at some appalling costs. Furthermore, the authors of the letter seem to misunderstand and misrepresent the relationship between the Foundation Phase and the teaching of phonics/reading. Surely the real elephant in the room is that phonics/reading isn’t taught at all in KS2? Phonics should take… Read more »

Mrs L
Mrs L
6 months ago
Reply to  Sarah Timmins

As a teacher in England, I can (as would many, many of my colleagues) tell you that the phonics check is not damaging and the rigorous teaching of SSP is not at great cost, but rather it is beneficial for all and crucial for some. I agree with you on other points about a trying early and continuing phonics instruction (and at least improving teacher understanding beyond KS1). Sounds Write are hosting a free conference with experts from all over the world speaking at it next week. You may be interested.

Mrs L
Mrs L
6 months ago
Reply to  Mrs L

That should say *starting early, not trying!

Sarah Timmins
Sarah Timmins
6 months ago
Reply to  Mrs L

Ok fair enough. That was a bit of a sweeping statement by me. I appreciate your point. There are many teachers in England who would disagree with you though – the ones I am in regular contact with on sites like keeping early years unique and in the moment planning – they talk of the stress and the pressure to produce this data so early on in a child’s schooling. The testing of 5 year olds is wrong in our opinion but more so, the rigorous training for the tests and the grief and pressure given to (some) teachers to… Read more »

Terry Mackie
Terry Mackie
6 months ago
Reply to  Sarah Timmins

Some interesting points but not true that we misrepresent the relationship between Foundation Phase (FP) and the teaching of reading. You should examine the findings of the Govt commissioned evaluation of FP led by Prof Chris Taylor. FP fails on literacy teaching and narrowing the attainment gap. These are two of the key aims of FP.

Sarah Timmins
Sarah Timmins
6 months ago
Reply to  Terry Mackie

I feel it is a misrepresentation to suggest that reading should be taught start to finish in the FP or that the FP has “failed” because older children still don’t read well enough. Surely KS2 teachers need to be onboard with teaching reading too. Either way, a phonics test in Y1 is really not the way forward to improving reading. I’ve just done a (non representative) survey of teachers in England – just a snapshot of opinions – but so far with around 150 responses in: 98% have said the Y1 phonics screen does NOT improve reading, and the vast… Read more »

H. Davies
H. Davies
6 months ago

Agree that reading standards are a big issue and pleased that the issue is brought to the attention of Mr. Miles. He might also be concerned by an article in The Times today which draws attention to a serious skills crisis in the field of numeracy. It suggests that – ‘About half the workforce lack basic numeracy skills and Britain has slipped further behind other developed countries: it is now the only country where the numeracy skills of 16 -24 year oldsare lower than those of the over 50s’. Mr. Miles has much with which to deal but accepting that… Read more »

Terry Mackie
Terry Mackie
6 months ago
Reply to  H. Davies

It’s certainly true that numeracy is not working well either. For more information on how well or how badly, don’t trust Estyn or the Govt. They don’t do international comparisons.

E. E.
E. E.
6 months ago

Institutionalised nepotism and cronyism amongst incapable primary heads. Dyna pam mae ysgolion gynradd Cymru mor wael.

Vaughan
Vaughan
6 months ago
Reply to  E. E.

Tystiolaeth?

E. E.
E. E.
6 months ago
Reply to  Vaughan

Dwi’n siwr ydach yn deall syt maer’r gêm yn cael ei chwara. A syt mae athrawon da heb cysylltiad a rheolwyr yn cael ei cloi allan yn gyfan os fysan yn cwyno.

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