11 December 2017
How one man’s passion for phonics is helping an entire generation

One of the things that tends to unite people, no matter the political ideas to which they subscribe, is the need to ensure that children have an outstanding education. It’s an issue of fundamental fairness. It is wrong for any child to be held back in life because they had the misfortune to be born in an area of bad schools. There is no exaggerating how much the basics of what our kids learn, or don’t learn, at primary school will affect them for the rest of their lives.

Many people end up discussing social mobility in the wrong way. We regularly read articles and columns looking at the lack of social diversity of those entering prestigious professions like journalism, law or medicine, and focus criticism only on those who doing the hiring. There are annual discussions too about the accessibility of Russell Group universities and Oxbridge, which focus only on outreach programmes and admissions. These are discussions that we should be having, because these are issues that it is too easy to shy away from. However, we need to look more closely at why the skills of some school leavers haven’t met the requirements of employers and universities, rather than taking the easy route of asking those organisations to change those requirements.

This has been a quiet focus of our party ever since taking over the reins of Government in 2010. Perhaps we’ve been too quiet, because this work couldn’t be more important. The most impressive part of the work that Ministers have been getting on with is that they’ve taken a real top to bottom approach to ensure the next generations have the skills they need to succeed. Whether it is by reforming universities, raising standards in apprenticeships and vastly expanding their provision, or by returning rigour to our GCSE and A Levels; efforts are being made at every level to deliver success.

But to really solve these problems you need to start by ensuring primary schools deliver. We sometimes miss how much of a vital role primary schools play. Whether or not a child reaches their expected standards by the end of their first interactions with the education system, follows them throughout the rest of their education and ultimately throughout the rest of their lives. This is for two reasons. Firstly, because you obviously need a solid foundation on which to build all other skills. If you struggle to read or write at the start of secondary school, then it will of course be difficult to advance into other areas required to secure good qualifications upon leaving. If secondary school teachers have to spend time catching them up, this takes up the time the child is meant to be using for more advanced learning, as well as taking teaching time away from other students.

But there is also a second impact. If you are not taught properly at a young age, and find things like reading hard, then this naturally has a pernicious effect on the self-confidence of a child. It opens up the danger that they write themselves off, and give up on learning long before they discover the things that they have a real passion for. Their potential is lost at the earliest stage, all because they have been let down.

The problem of Government faced in 2010 was that one in five children left primary school unable to read at the required standard, and one in seven left with a reading ability no better than that expected of a seven year old. That is why the Government, in a move spearheaded by the long-serving Education Minister, Nick Gibb, changed the National Curriculum to require schools explicitly to teach reading using phonics, which has long been shown to be the key to learning to read well. The old system, which allowed many variations of what is referred to as the ‘look and say’ approach, had been failing, particularly those who were least able.

The results since the change have been outstanding. After the introduction of the Phonics Screening Check for six year olds, the proportion of students meeting the expected standard has risen from just 58 per cent in 2012 to 81 per cent in 2017, with 92 per cent of pupils reaching the standard by age seven. Importantly from the perspective of social mobility, these changes have led to the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and more affluent ones closing by 9.3 per cent at age 11.

The evidence of this success is mounting, with the announcement last week of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which compares the reading of 9 and 10 year olds with 50 countries internationally. Pupils in England improved their results, and found themselves in eighth place in the world. This outcome is significant because these children are the first cohort to have come through the system since the introduction of the Phonics Screening Check, and that is very encouraging.

These results mark a real moment of triumph for the Government and personal achievement for Gibb. And there is still a lot to do, in both protecting the changes we’ve made while they bed in and produce results, as well as coming up with new ways to enhance attainment and increase opportunities. But it’s exciting to see these results start to come through and vindicate the efforts our Government are making to raise standards and boost social mobility. I’m proud of the work our party has done, and I’m sure we’ll see outcomes improve again and again in the years to come.

| First published on the ConservativeHome website