On 29th April the latest SSLN results were published, revealing the performance of our children in reading, writing, talking and listening. You would hope, that given the fact that almost all of our teachers now feel confident in delivering the Experiences and Outcomes of Curriculum for Excellence, that we would see an improvement in performance – that our ‘new’ curriculum is ‘producing the goods’. So it is both sobering and saddening to learn that in fact, we are effectively worse than we were two years ago.

What is going on? Well, in my opinion, there are many things that have contributed to this result, including the fact that we are operating against a background of cuts and a ‘do more with less’ situation. In addition, through my work with schools, I can see that teachers have been working harder than ever – particularly over the last five years. However, perhaps we are working too hard to do everything – and we our spreading ourselves too thinly. The plate of primary teachers has never been so full, or heavy. If you consider everything we feel we should be doing, you will struggle to fit that into a two week timetable – let alone one. Starting with our curricular areas: Expressive arts, Health and wellbeing, Languages, Mathematics, Religious and moral education, Sciences, Social studies and Technologies – it looks like we have 8 major items to deal with, except for Languages, read Literacy and English – and two additional foreign languages, one from P1 and the other from P5. Don’t forget two hours of quality P.E. a week, literacy and numeracy across learning, interdisciplinary learning, enterprise and finance education, charity work for responsible citizens, sustainability, eco-schools and green flags and gardens, outdoor learning, parental involvement, schools trips and school camps, assemblies, music tuition, sports day, transition, technology (but you only get 10 computers for 40 minutes every Wednesday and only 7 are working), and this term don’t forget your end-of-term-show, Leavers’ Assembly and Prize Giving. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I believe that in the quest to ‘do it all’ we end up ‘window dressing’ – and the time for quality teaching and learning with daily, consecutive practice in our core skills, such as Maths and Language, is being eroded.

However, I also believe that these results reveal a much greater problem, when it comes to literacy: what we are currently doing is not working. What we are currently doing is not good enough. What we are currently doing is failing our children. It is time to stop what we are currently doing and find something else that works. Like what? Well, those among you that have had time to read the recent 3-18 Literacy and English Review from Education Scotland, or the much discussed Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on Closing the Attainment Gap in Scottish Education (Sue Ellis and Edward Sosu)you will know that real, specific answers to this problem are in short supply. (Although the JRF report does contain many useful general suggestions /references to current research and is definitely worth reading.)

Let’s review the results for a moment. The graphic below shows how we’re doing in reading – I have only included the children who are ‘doing very well’, because, after all, after three or four years on First or Second Level – we would hope that all of our children would be confident and competent at the respective level in reading.

Here are our results from 2012:

And our results from 2014:

For comparison, here are some results from a school in east London at the end of Year 6 (Primary 7).London Curwen statsThe first thing to bear in mind, is the fact that 55% of Curwen’s intake is considered ‘disadvantaged’ – and 67% have English as a second language. Yet, despite these stats, 98% of their children are achieving Level 4 in reading – this is equivalent to our old Level D – or currently a Secure Second Level. Difficult to digest isn’t it? That is 98%… compare to our 41% who are ‘doing very well at the level’.

What are they doing differently? Well, if you’re a regular reader of my blog – then you’ll have guessed the punchline already. This school (and there are plenty more examples just like them) have been using a ‘pure’ phonics approach to the teaching of reading for over 10 years. Meanwhile, in Scotland, it is clear that our attachment to mixed methods is not serving us, or more importantly, our children, well.

It is time to wake up and smell the /k/ /o/ /f/ /ee/. We can no longer rest on the laurels of our past success. We can no longer afford to be smug and sneering when it comes to what is happening south of the border. They have closed the attainment gap. What about you?smell the coffee

It’s time to wake up and smell the /k/ /o/ /f/ /ee/

8 thoughts on “It’s time to wake up and smell the /k/ /o/ /f/ /ee/

  • May 10, 2015 at 2:01 pm

    Thought-provoking as always Anne. On the issue of teaching kids to read and the 'pure phonics v mixed methiods' debate, I would defer to your greater expertise and judgement. On the wider issue of teachers having too much to deal with, I believe this happens as a result of seeing the curriculum areas as separate 'items' as you describe them, and the consequent need to tick many hundreds of boxes as a priority. This problem could be solved immediately if education policy makers in Scotland decided to ditch ALL the outcomes from the primary curriculum except those in Literacy, Numeracy and Health and Wellbeing. A drastic move but it might be worth a shot.

    • May 10, 2015 at 2:21 pm

      Thanks Bill. I think your drastic move idea could be exactly what's needed. Teachers are supposed to have more freedom under Curriculum for Excellence – but speaking to the teachers themselves, the reality is that in primary, they have never felt so contrained – and have never had so little time. Often when we review good practice and reflect on our teaching and learning of reading – so many teachers will tell me that 'oh we used to do that'. My question is always – what happened? Why aren't you doing that good stuff anymore? The answer is always time / CfE. I think, even for a short period, teachers would benefit from a de-cluttering. For example, I have worked with a couple of visionary HTs who have declared that 'everything else is off the menu' until we get literacy / numeracy / x right. And with the the SSLN results of the last two years, no-one could argue with this approach. 😀

  • May 10, 2015 at 2:08 pm

    Really interesting post Anne.

    I've taught in England (Y6 SATs for 4 years) and Scotland. Another big difference will be that in England there will have been a lot of practice leading to those SATs scores. A lot of teaching from Y2 upwards with outcomes similar to the style of the test the children complete in Y6, as well as Easter schools, booster lessons etc once in Y6. Maths, literacy and science was taught in large amounts of time to the detriment of other subjects – you point out in your post that CfE has 8 key areas that we're trying to cram into a timetable, well in England they really don't worry too much about non-Sat subjects on the whole.

    It's also worth bearing in mind that SATs test every child in England. The SSLN doesn't. Therefore it's a smaller sample size and more open to anomaly.

    The dip in results from 2012 to 2014 is interesting, but those stats don't show development of those children through their school career (mind the drop from 60% P7 performing well in 2012 to 41% performing well in S2 in 2014 is appalling if reflected across the board – these being the same cohort – we'd have been better giving them two years off school and so much cheaper)

    During 2012-2014, a massive amount of political energy went into the Indy Ref, and I heard very little from mid 2013 to…well even now to be honest about improving education (In late 2012 I heard Kezia speak about her ideas around education and thought they were excellent, I also heard Huw Lewis from Wales speak about how Wales was thinking about addressing the P7-S1 tranisition dip with some truly radical ideas.) I wondered at the time what was being neglected to provide this energy, education didn't seem to have much of a mention (I'm also amazed that no Better Together person pointed out the difference between attainment in SSLN v SATs as a reason to be 'better together' – If I was in the SNP indy ref group, I'd spend 5 years improving education and health and then showing the 55% how much better the country's devolved areas are the their UK areas, before even thinking of Ref 2)

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Anne,




    • May 10, 2015 at 2:54 pm

      Thanks for taking the time to comment in such detail Robert – it's also great to have your perspective on this – especially as you have experience of both systems. I suppose firstly I should say that, in no way am I suggesting that we should be testing our children in the same way as the SATs do in England. However, it does give schools in England some robust data to work with, compared to our SSLN data – which you rightly point out, is only part of the picture. I also realise that some schools are achieving results through intense, sustained effort – and a sidelining of other subjects. My feeling is though, that what is important about schools like Curwen PS above, is that they are getting it right from the beginning – and I think that this goes a long way to contributing to those impressive results.

      With regards to the dips seen in secondary school, again there are several factors at work here. Firstly, I feel that the levels don't work. Primaries have over 6 years to 'get children through' First and Second Level – then suddenly between starting secondary school you have 2 years to achieve Third Level and be well on your way to achieving Fourth Level – that in itself is unrealistic. Should we just give them two years off school? No – but we haven't helped ourselves by adding a third year of 'treading water' onto the 'broad general education'. Transition still is not working. Secondary schools still seem to begin the learning and teaching where they feel it should begin – rather than where their learners are at. Still, given the wide variance of ability within classes, this is understandable. Also, add in the fact that the exam tail is still wagging the dog and that the real and constant pressure for secondaries is getting the children through National and New Highers – well, we see that despite CfE and best intentions, that nothing much has changed.

      As for the political stuff, well, I do think it's a wee bit unfair to say that education has been ignored. I think that lots is being done to try and address the attainment gap – from free school meals in P1-P3, the Early Years Collaborative, Play, Talk, Read, the Attainment Challenge Fund and of course, Raising Attainment for All – are all trying to attack the many ways that disadvantage manifests itself. For me though, we also need to focus on tightening up our teaching – if we just get the basics right from the beginning, with excellent teaching and learning, by skilled practitioners, that are up to date with the latest findings from research on the most effective way to get all of our children reading, writing and spelling – I truly believe that this is what will level the playing field for our learners and ensure that the gap is stopped in its tracks. It is education that holds the power of transformation for our poorest learners.

      Thanks so much again for commenting – it's great to have some interaction and opinions other than mine on the blog! 😀

  • May 11, 2015 at 4:39 pm

    I would just like to reiterate what Anne is suggesting. Getting the basics right will make a profound difference moving forwards for all ages and in all subjects. As author of Phonics International and phonics consultant for the Oxford Reading Tree Floppy's Phonics Sounds and Letters programme, I spend my time referring to generic information and research findings and the work and programme of others to illustrate the 'commonality' between leading-edge programmes and practices – not just 'my own'.

    In other words, I try to make my work about building on the work and findings of 'others' and not just my personal experiences – although of course my own journey as a teacher, headteacher and special needs teacher prior to wider work in literacy is hugely significant.

    For the purposes of this posting, however, I would like to call upon anecdotal evidence regarding my own practice when I was infant teaching which was formative in developing my resources and guidance.

    Whenever supply teachers taught my Year One/Two class (5 to 7 year olds), they could not believe the children's level of literacy. They could pretty much read anything and their writing was incredible. It was vocabulary-rich based on their oral language from home and also the level of vocabulary they could read as individuals and as we covered in class.

    At that time, I introduced fully joined handwriting in Year One (although I generally recommend Year Two as a good time – once print is very well-established) – but all the children could write well in a fantastic fully joined script on writing lines.

    The supply teachers told me that they loved coming to my class because no matter what 'subject' they covered, the children were so able to read and write as part of their lessons. 

    The supply teachers confirmed that the children's reading and writing was comparable, in most cases, to top junior children (9 to 11 year olds). Teaching them was a joy.

    When we had to do the end of Year Two statutory tests, not a single child needed an adult to read for them for their maths tests. The very weakest and youngest child could tackle the maths tests independently.

    After working in that particular school, I was headteacher in a Special Measures school (appalling levels of literacy and behaviour) followed by working in upper Key Stage Two in a school which went on to be 'closed' and reopened as a new school. It was absolutely true that my Year One/Two children were streets ahead of many of these children. Words cannot do justice to the different outcomes for children taught the basics really well as infants – and children who had missed out on these basics (because of lack of phonics and mixed methods – because of lack of training and understanding of their otherwise fab teachers).

    I don't often call upon my personal journey in this way, but I just felt the need in this case to try to describe that this emphasis on 'the basics' and 'phonics' is not a small thing, it is a very, very, very important thing.


    • May 11, 2015 at 5:33 pm

      Dear Debbie, thank you so much for taking the time to share your expertise and your personal story on the blog. To hear about the difference that getting the basics right from the beginning can make to classes and individuals is simply wonderful. To have your P2s/P3s reading and writing independently – at a level often only found further up the school – is testament to the real impact that effective reading instruction can have. I recall a quote from your Rose Review in England, along the lines of 'I'm seeing Primary 3 quality in Primary 1' – and this from a teacher who was interviewed by Sir Jim Rose and his team in Clackmannashire on the back of the longitudinal study into synthetic phonics. The real irony is that we were doing this stuff – over ten years ago – yet today we continue to scratch our heads, wondering what to do about the attainment gap. It is a sad state of affairs, particulalrly for our children. Thank you for sharing your personal journey with us.

  • May 11, 2015 at 6:11 pm

    Anne – I'm just so glad that 'sharing' might make more difference than all the official routes and pontification of academics undermining the central, very common sense, messages about reading (and spelling) instruction.

    I'm currently evaluating the 'Read On. Get On' campaign in England that has huge backing by various clouty organisations in England. What is so very upsetting is their miserable goal of 2025 to get all children reading by the age of 11.

    We have schools in challenging circumstances doing this NOW – as you well know considering this was the thrust of the recent Reading Reform Foundation conference (March 2015).

    And, as you have just pointed out, we had schools doing this in Clackmannanshire a decade ago.

    This is criminal. We CAN teach all children well – but both teachers and parents deserve to know and understand the findings of research (internationally) and then we can literally set about to make all children successful.

    I don't deny for one minute that children who are advantaged orally are advantaged generally, but then all the more reason to make sure that ALL our children can read 'technically' which amounts to fantastic phonics teaching – which leads to the likelihood of children reading more widely which will then help to increase their oral vocabulary.

    Teacher knowledge AND parent knowledge is key – and now is the time for all teachers to be trained in these factors and to be able to evaluate their own practice with deep professional understanding.

    Recently, I created a graphic which reflects my observations and findings of phonics provision in England. ALL the teachers and assistants are hard-working – but they don't all provide what is needed for ALL of their children.

    Here is the graphic for what it is worth:


    In my opinion, everyone should see this graphic to begin to make people think more thoroughly about the realities of their basic skills provision.



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