Test scores and poverty – it doesn’t add up

England’s schools are drowning in data. Everybody is obsessed with accountability statistics, from Ofsted down to the school cat. This  obsession with data distorts the way we look at pupils and their education.

300 spreadsheet columns running from A to KD are produced for every primary school in every local authority. Every child has a cumulative data record from starting to leaving school. These numbers forms the basis for Ofsted judgements, school takeover bids and parents’ choice of school. And it’s next to useless.

The system claims to make fair judgements about how ‘effective’ each school is, after making allowances for ‘disadvantage’. This is based on the proportion of pupils in a school who have been entitled to free school meals (FSM) at some time in the past six years, known as FSMever6.

It is true that even a short spell on FSM tends to reduce attainment, but the data makes no distinction between the length or the severity of child poverty.

The disadvantage / FSMever6 category is misleading because it doesn’t differentiate between temporary hardship and chronic poverty. Analysis of national data shows that any length of time in poverty is damaging, but there are substantial differences between a brief period and chronic poverty.

On average across England children who have been entitled to FSM in just one term of primary school score about 4 percentage points below the average at KS2, but those who have been FSM for six full years are over 10 percentage points down. The impact during secondary school is worse: from around 6 to 13 percentage points at GCSE.

One indicator of long-lasting poverty is if more of the pupils classed as disadvantaged are currently entitled to free meals. Nationally around half of children classed as Disadvantaged have a current entitlement, but in some places it is as high as two thirds, for example Middlesbrough and Knowsley, which suggests that more families are trapped in chronic poverty there. In some other areas such as Harrogate or Winchester, only a third of children classed as disadvantaged are currently FSM-entitled, suggesting better opportunities and a faster escape from poverty.

As well as the physical effects, being trapped in chronic poverty has a deep psychological effect, leading to depression and despair. This often impacts on children’s mental health and attitudes to learning.

Children with a current FSM entitlement are only two-thirds as likely to reach the ‘expected standard’ in reading, writing and mathematics. Things get worse as time goes on: they are less than half as likely to achieve grade 5 or above in English and maths at GCSE.

This is not the only distortion. There are degrees of poverty, and many children are in desperate situations. It is no wonder that some areas have been near the bottom of school league tables for years. By themselves neither disadvantage, nor even current FSM figures, can reflect the extent of some children’s misery.

Free School Meal entitlement is a ‘proxy indicator’ of poverty, used because the data is easy to collect. It cannot reflect whether children are sleeping in damp rooms, not eating properly, and don’t have winter clothes. It doesn’t show that some parents have become deeply depressed or addicted to drugs. It doesn’t show the demoralising effect of living in a deindustrialised town with no job prospects – in some cases for 30 years or more. This complexity is better reflected in other social data, such as the Index of Multiple Deprivation, available on a geographical basis.

There is no such thing as a ‘normal’ FSM pupil. There is also no ‘standard’ non-FSM child.

We cannot assume that children who are not FSM-entitled aren’t affected by poverty. Many are in poverty but do not match the criteria. It is nonsense to compare two schools just because they both have 70% of non-FSM children. In some schools most of the families are struggling to make ends meet; in others there are many families with affluent lifestyles and the means to boost their children’s school performance.

For more posts exposing the uselessness of ‘accountability’ based on test scores, see: 

Sats tests are still a shocking failure (July 2018)

Phonics test – Nick Gibb fails again (Sept 2018)

Progress 8 and the North East (Jan 2018)

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International evidence and the phonics test

In a previous blog post, we were able to show that the Phonics Check is not a useful indicator of actual reading. Decoding regularly spelt words is only one component of reading. The rapid increase in scores in the phonics check has not led to significant improvement in reading for understanding. The schools minister Nick Gibb’s claim that ‘155,000 more six-year-olds are on track to become fluent readers’ is far from the truth.

It is possible to check such claims against PIRLS, the international reading test taken by a representative sample of 10-year-olds (i.e. around 4 years after they had taken the phonics test). PIRLS is, unlike the phonics test, an assessment of real reading – reading for understanding.

When PIRLS results came out, Gibb claimed credit for what he saw as a massive improvement – the move from 10th to joint 8th place. It wasn’t actually so significant. This arose, in fact, because Croatia didn’t take part in 2016 and Denmark and the USA fell down the table. England’s score had shifted slightly, from 552 to 559.


It is interesting that Ireland’s score rose twice as much, and it is now the highest ranking European country. Ireland’s approach to reading is very different, without the obsessive approach to synthetic phonics which Gibb has imposed on England’s schools. Ireland expects its teachers to be:

‘familiar with the various strategies, approaches, methodologies and interventions that can be used to teach literacy’.

Ireland’s primary school teachers are encouraged to combine analytic and synthetic phonics, sight recognition, rhymes and initial letters, pictorial cues, and a sense of texts. Phonics is embedded in real uses of literacy.

Approaches to education are child-friendly and developmental. Year 1 teachers are advised to be

‘developmentally appropriate and avoid premature formalities… be child-centred, broadly-based, prioritise play and reinforce the concept of the child as an active learner‘.

The emphasis in Year 1 is on spoken language (Irish as well as English, to ensure that all children are bilingual).

None of this will mute Nick Gibb’s trumpet. He loves to take the credit for England’s success, and is adept at using statistics selectively. Comparing PIRLS down the years, he recently boasted that:

England has risen from 19th place in 2006 to joint 8th in the world reading league table (PIRLS).

Using 2006 as his starting line is cunning but dishonest. The PIRLS international tests began in 2001, when England came 3rd, with a score of 553. In other words, England’s children are reading no better now than before Gibb started telling teachers how to do their job.

For more research on the phonics test, please read:
Challenging the tyranny of the Phonics Check

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Phonics test – Nick Gibb fails again

Schools minister Nick Gibb is crowing, once again, that thousands more children are ‘on track to become fluent readers’. Improved pass rates in the Phonics test show no such thing.

“163,000 more 6-year-olds are on track to become fluent readers since the introduction of the phonics screening check in 2012.” (Gibb 27 sept 2018)

The phonics test requires children to pronounce 20 words and 20 non-words and score 32 to pass. The real words are restricted to simple regular spellings: sing, flat, chop, dart, shock, delay appeared this year, with a few more difficult (saucers, groans).

It does not check whether children can read very common words such as the, was, any, there, said, come – though it’s impossible to read without them.

The non-words used this year included reb, wup, eps, zook, chack, and scrid.

The test carefully avoids letter combinations which can be pronounced in different ways eg ou (soup, out, could, soul). There is no requirement to read a full sentence or to know what words mean.

There has been a substantial rise in the numbers passing this absurd test since it was first introduced:

2012   2013   2014      2015    2016   2017    2018    (Year 1)
58%    69%    74%      77%     81%     81%     82%

an increase of 24 percentage points over a 5 year period. Many hours are spent teaching children how to read nonsense!

However, the impact on a reading-for-understanding test taken a year later has been negligible:

2013   2014   2015      2016    2017    2018                (Year 2)
86%    89%    89%      74%     76%     75%

The following graph shows the mismatch (the year is when each batch of children took  their Y2 reading comprehension test).

However to interpret these results properly, you have to bear in mind that the Year 2 assessment was made much harder from 2016 onwards. To adjust for this, we can add together the gains made year-by-year on each side of this break:
2013 to 2014   3 points
2014 to 2015   0 points
2016 to 2017   2 points
2017 to 2018   -1 point

i.e. an average of just 1 percentage point per year. If we assume the same for 2015-2016, we have a very modest increase of 5 percentage points over the 5 year period. (Even this could be the result of more intensive test preparation.)

We can show this graphically by adjusting the 2013-5 scores to reflect the increased difficulty of the Y2 reading tests from 2016-8.

Nick Gibb’s reading miracle is smoke and mirrors. Higher phonics check scores show only… higher phonics check scores. They do not mean children are ‘on track’ to becoming better readers.

Immense pressure is being placed on young children. It is significant that 25% of August-born children are failed – and their parents told they have failed – compared with 11% of September-born children.

Many children afflicted by poverty are often slower to develop. Not surprisingly, 30% of children entitled to free meals are failed – and their parents told they have failed.

This could have a long-term effect on their personalities, development,  mental health and attitude to education.

To understand the lack of evidence behind this Government’s insistence on the ‘synthetic phonics’ method, please read our earlier series of posts: 

Phonics: myths and evidence

The Scottish phonics miracle: myths and evidence

The Rose Report on phonics: playing fast and loose with ‘the evidence’

The phonics check: what does it prove?

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Ofsted dodges the blame

A new school year has begun with the Government’s key allies having to acknowledge some of the desperate problems in the school system but without admitting that any of it is their fault. In particular, Amanda Spielman, as head of Ofsted, carefully avoids criticising government policy whilst trying to deflect the blame onto schools.

Curriculum narrowing and ‘teaching to the test’

Teachers have been complaining for years that high-stakes tests are narrowing the curriculum. The House of Commons select committee received abundant evidence and demanded change.

Spielman’s recent speeches acknowledge the problem but pretend it is neither the Government’s fault nor Ofsted’s. Surely she realises that Ofsted primary school inspections have been focused almost exclusively on literacy and numeracy. A recent report by the Wellcome Trust showed that half of Ofsted primary inspections didn’t even mention science, which is supposedly a core subject, let alone history or music.

But it is easier to blame teachers and governors. According to Spielman

those working in education need to ask themselves how we have created a situation where second-guessing the test can trump the pursuit of real, deep knowledge and understanding. Too many teachers and leaders have not been trained to think deeply about what they want their pupils to learn and how they are going to teach it. (18 Sept 2018)

Inadequate teacher training is certainly a problem, but surely Spielman understands that fast-track ‘on the job’ teacher training is official Conservative policy?

Spielman confirms that inspectors have witnessed

curriculum narrowing, especially in upper key stage 2, with lessons disproportionately focused on English and mathematics. Sometimes this manifested as intensive, even obsessive, test preparation for key stage 2 sats that in some cases started at Christmas in Year 6.

Yet the chief inspector shields Government ministers from any responsibility.

Speaking truth to power

Kevin Courtney, as joint General Secretary of the NEU, is clear that Ofsted is not the solution but part of the problem. He has expressed no confidence in “another Ofsted policing solution” which would simply shield the government and deflect the blame onto schools. Continue reading

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SATs tests are still a shocking failure

Despite intensive test preparation and enormous stress for children and teachers, Key Stage 2 SATs tests for 2018 are a disaster once again.

Figures published today show that only 64% of children passed Reading, Writing and Maths. That means 1 in 3 children will move on to secondary school with a failure notice round their necks.

Continue reading

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Challenging the tyranny of the Phonics Check

It is hard to compete with Margaret Clark’s tenacity in challenging the deeply flawed Phonics Screening Check along with  schools minister Nick Gibb’s dogmatic support of Synthetic Phonics. After editing two books in a single year, she has just completed a major survey of teachers, heads and parents.

This research is damning of government policy. It clearly demonstrates the distortion of teaching and the sheer waste of pupils’ time.

  • 97% of the teachers deliberately practice individual words and pseudo words out of context, and many schools ask parents to do the same.
  • 94% say the test gives them no information on individual children that they don’t already have.
  • The majority believe the test to be inaccurate.
  • 80% say it is not useful to include pseudo words.
  • 68% think it should simply be discontinued, whilst a further 20% believe it should be available for administering only to some children at the teacher’s professional discretion.

Continue reading

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Knowledge, skills and ‘dead white males’

Comment by Terry Wrigley, Northumbria University

In a recent debate Mary Bousted, joint General Secretary of the NEU, has made a bold challenge to the assumptions behind the current National Curriculum. She argued against its backwardness, narrow nationalism, and neglect of skills. It is not surprising that she has come under attack on social media from people who either don’t understand or deliberately misrepresent her arguments.

Skills Continue reading

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