Professor Alice Bradbury, Co-Director of Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy, UCL Institute of Education
Professor Gemma Moss, Director of International Literacy Centre, UCL Institute of Education
This autumn term, for the second year running, the Phonics Screening Check (PSC) will be taking place in Year 2 classrooms for all pupils, rather than the usual system of testing everyone at the end of Year 1. The Covid crisis led to the suspension of all statutory testing in the summer of 2021 and no other assessments have been moved, only the PSC. This means that Year 2 pupils who have missed out on months of classroom time last year will be taken out of their classrooms this term, to test their phonics decoding skills by asking them to read aloud 40 words and pseudo-words.
The PSC is intended to monitor the quality of phonics teaching in the school as well as provide information on individuals for teachers. This year’s use of the test, however, will be meaningless unless local circumstances are taken into account, because the pandemic has affected schools in such a variety of ways. Our IOE research found that schools reacted in complex and thoughtful ways to the impacts of Covid on their communities, taking into account circumstances that made home learning difficult for pupils; each school has its own ‘Covid story’. Varied local circumstances meant children had a wide range of needs, including insufficient food or heating for those pupils living in poverty, housing problems, and families under pressure from high levels of mental stress, anxiety and the possibility of domestic violence. Parental employment was affected by the pandemic and some families suddenly found themselves experiencing financial distress, or having to juggle the dual jobs of working from home and supporting children’s learning under less than ideal conditions. Many families without sufficient digital devices or internet access had to ration access to remote learning, often prioritising older siblings. Against this background, results can only reflect the amount of disruption to pupils’ learning that COVID has caused, and cannot be used to judge schools.
Equally, the PSC is not the best diagnostic tool for schools to use if they want to fully understand how reading has progressed; it will not pick up gaps in comprehension that also matter in developing reading competence. Research conducted last year found that only 16% of Year 2 teachers agreed that the test was necessary because the cohort missed the test in Year 1, and headteachers described the test as ‘unnecessary’ and ‘irrelevant’, because teachers had better methods of assessment. The test was seen as wasting time: 68% of Year 2 teachers said the test has reduced the time spent on other literacy activities, with more lesson time being spent on practice tests and learning to recognise pseudo-words. Additional testing at a time of still considerable disruption is an unnecessary burden for Year 2 teachers, which does not help them address children’s reading progress.
The use of the PSC in Year 2 shows that the government has the wrong priorities in relation to primary education. Covid has shown how essential schools are to children’s welfare and to children’s physical development, language development and writing skills. Schools need to invest in a broad curriculum right now that can address the range of pupils’ needs; this is much more important than statutory testing returning to its fixed timetable. Repeating the PSC in Year 2 is inappropriate and unhelpful for the children and teachers involved, but also unfair as a way of judging schools because they have varied Covid stories.