Sneamp, queep, bamph, pleesh: The Phonics Screening Check and Educational Testing

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By the time English children leave school they are among the most tested in the world. There is a constant clamouring among politicians to ensure that education is ‘rigorous’ and children are ready for employment, and yet when worldwide educational comparison tests are completed Britain ranks a lowly 25th.

Michael Gove responded to these test results with, unsurprisingly, more tests. From September 2016 four year olds will be subject to a national ‘baseline assessment’ which will rank them based on ability. Soon, it is likely that there will be standardised tests at the end of every year of primary school. Even under the existing system, before children reach the end of their primary schooling they will have taken three separate national tests, ranking and labelling them thrice over before they reach their twelfth birthdays.

Nothing illustrates the futility of this testing more than the national ‘Phonics Screening Check’ for six year olds, which was imposed in 2012. Administered at the end of Year 1, the PSC is designed to make sure that all children have met a required standard in reading. Children have to read forty words, of which twenty are ‘alien’ made up words to test their decoding skills, (e.g. fape, squeap, sneam). Children who are unable to achieve the pass mark are noted, and retested the following year and every subsequent year until they meet the required standard. 

Like so much assessment that happens in schools today the PSC becomes devoid of any meaning. Learning to read is a far more complex series of skills than simply decoding letters on a page. When fluent readers come across an unfamiliar word in a text they have a multitude of strategies to help them decide what it says – for example, reading the rest of the sentence to give the word meaning, looking at the shape and pattern of the letters, hearing sounds and making connections with other known word families (the ‘word games’ and ‘family resemblances’ of language that Ludwig Wittgenstein uncovered in his Philosophical Investigations; who, incidentally, became an elementary school teacher between the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and that much later work). Very few fluent readers read by using phonics alone, in fact English is a language that by its very nature makes this impossible. And yet, this year across the country, in just a few weeks time we will be labelling thousands of six year old children failures at reading, simply because they cannot adequately use one strategy.

This ‘failure’ does not mean the child is incapable of reading. Some children learn to read very well, with excellent understanding, without ever using phonics, yet in the current system they will still fail, and be continually reminded of this failure every year until they conform to a strategy they can often succeed perfectly well without.

Taken in isolation the PSC may seem fairly harmless, but it is just one example of the many pointless tests children are put through in their years of education. If children fail these tests multiple times how long is it before that message of failure begins to sink into the child’s consciousness? This continued meaningless testing will eventually give the children a message that they ‘cannot’ read, simply because they couldn’t decode words in the correct way. They will begin to consider themselves ‘bad’ at maths, because they don’t score the required standard in a very arbitrary test at aged seven, a message reinforced when they’re tested again at eleven. These children will have alarmingly fixed ideas about their educational standing before they’ve even begun secondary school. What motivation can there possibly be for these children to achieve well in GCSEs and A Levels when they have already received, multiple times, the message that they are no good at learning? 

Perhaps what children need instead is not more testing, but the chance to explore new ideas, be shown skills in analysis and evaluation and taught that a range of different learning styles are valuable. If they receive this message throughout their early education then maybe when they come to sit formal tests at the end of their secondary schooling they will be ready for them and achieve in a way that is truly reflective of their abilities. Perhaps then Britain might find it performs more successfully on the world stage.

Illustration by Sky Nash (@skynash). See more from her here: skynash.co.uk

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