Dear Ms Truss,
Thank you for your letter of 27 August in response to a letter from my MP, Philip Davies, which was written following a conversation I had with him about the phonics test which your government has instituted at the end of year one.
First of all, may I make a small correction? My educational concerns relate to my daughter, not my son. I don’t have a son. As I haven’t seen the letter Mr Davies sent to you, I am not sure whether this mistake was made by him or by you, but rest assured that I don’t hold it against either of you. I understand how difficult it is to commit facts securely to the working memory and recall them correctly on any given day, and wouldn’t want to use this as a means of assessing how well someone is doing.
Let me first address what you describe as a “light-touch assessment designed to identify children who may need help with their phonics decoding”. May I suggest that it is, in fact, a rather blunt instrument which fails to achieve your desired end?
My daughter is a good reader, with a strong grasp of phonics, which has enabled her to move on to digraphs, trigraphs and tricky words, developing her decoding skills far beyond basic phonics. The irony was not lost on us that we received, in the same envelope, her phonics test results, identifying her as needing extra support, and her school report, saying she was “a confident reader” with a grasp of phonics ready to start concentrating on reading fluently and with expression.
Let me at this stage make it clear that my concerns here are not about the results of your test. I am not a pushy parent who expects my daughter to be at the top of the class for everything and is disappointed if she doesn’t get top marks. On the contrary, I have no concerns about her progress educationally and if she needs extra support in a particular area, I would be pleased to see her receive it. Like any child, she is better at some things than others, does best at the things she is most interested in and, most crucially, is only six. And a half. She doesn’t like it if I forget the half. My concerns are with what seems to be an inappropriate and ineffective test which doesn’t serve my daughter, the school or the Department for Education in any meaningful way.
Your test is a blunt instrument of assessment because it only provides a measure of how well a child reads a single list of words on a given day at a given time. It does not provide a measure of whether that child needs help with their phonics. As a very active six year old little girl, my daughter has an incredibly short attention span. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that she got bored of your phonics test, lost concentration, and gave her answers quickly without thinking them through in order to get it over and move on to something more interesting. I suspect she may not be the only six year old in the country for whom this could be true. That is why your test doesn’t provide an accurate assessment of her phonics decoding.
In the conversation that I had with Mr Davies, while he was attempting to explain the government’s reasoning behind this test, he asked the question, “If you don’t test them in this way, how do you know they can read?” Let me answer that question for you. I know that my daughter can read, because she reads. She reads books at home. She reads menus and signs and posters when we go out and asks me about them. My husband and I are no longer able to use spelling words out as a method of secret communication because she knows what we are saying.
I was pleased to see that, in your letter, you said it is up to the school to determine the level of support that she might need. I was pleased to see this because our school is excellent and has always served our family incredibly well. They understand my daughter, not just educationally, but also in terms of her character and her past experiences. They approach everything about her schooling with this in mind, which is why we have a happy and confident little girl, being helped to reach her full potential, not just educationally but socially and in developing her personality.
I trust our school completely to assess what level of support she needs. Just as we know, her teachers know that she can read and decode phonics, because they teach her every day. She reads to them. They set her appropriate reading, spelling and sound based work, both at school and at home. They are good teachers who know their pupils and understand their strengths and weaknesses. It angers and disappoints me that all their excellent work in teaching our daughter to read is boiled down to a statistic based on a test result that in no way reflects reality.
May I suggest that, just as you trust the school to determine what level of support she might need, you could also trust them to identify those children who do need extra support with their phonics, and to keep records of how each child is progressing with their reading, instead of administering this ineffective test which does not provide reliable results?
As a parent who speaks to other parents, and a storyteller who regularly visits schools across my city, I know that our experience of and feelings about this test are not a one-off, or even in the small minority. I am deeply concerned about the education system that is being built for my daughter and the other children in this country, as are many others.
As a parent, I feel increasingly disenfranchised and powerless in terms of my child’s education. We frequently hear from government of an increasing level of choice for parents in their child’s schooling, but in reality we have no choice about the education system in which our children must participate. It is deeply frustrating to see decisions made at government level and implemented in schools, the consequences of which our children must suffer, when we have serious concerns that they may be damaging to our children.
Just this week a letter has been published in the press from a group of 128 experts calling for formal schooling to be delayed until the age of six or seven because early education is causing “profound damage” to children. Their point of view is a serious and valid one, drawing on sound research and based on examples from other countries – yet the spokesman for Michael Gove responded by calling them a “powerful and badly misguided lobby […] who bleat bogus pop-psychology about ‘self-image’, which is an excuse for not teaching poor children how to add up.” What a rude and dismissive response.
I hope that one of the things my daughter will develop while at school is an ability to engage with those who hold different views from her intelligently and respectfully. I have my doubts as to whether your department can build an education system that will do that when I read a rude, arrogant and dismissive response like the one reported in the papers above.
You wrote at the end of your letter that you hoped it was helpful to me. Having written to your department before and received standard letters in reply which in no way directly address my concerns, what would be helpful to me would be to receive a letter in response to this one which actually engages with what I’ve said. What would be helpful from your department is a mature, considered response to experts, parents, teachers and others who disagree with you and hold an alternative view on education, and who express that view out of concern for the children of our country not because they hate the education department and want to attack it.
Every decision that your department makes has a real, serious impact on children throughout this country. It is shameful that you choose to engage in this significant and crucial debate in the terms quoted above.
I have copied my MP, Philip Davies, into this letter and also your Lib Dem colleague, David Laws. I look forward to receiving your reply.