Schools 'pushed into phonics by financial incentives'

Child reading The report places an emphasis on the importance of reading for pleasure

Schools in England are being given financial incentives by the government to use certain phonics materials to teach reading, MPs have said.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Education said matched funding was directing schools towards a "small range of products".

It also warns this way of teaching reading by blending sounds can "switch off" children from a love of books.

The government said the phonics system was proven to work.

A phonic system is where children are taught the individual sounds of each letter and group of letters, then how to blend those sounds to make words.

The report on literacy, by the independent cross-party group of MPs, says: "For cash-strapped schools the incentive to take advantage of the matched funding offered for phonics products and training will push them in the direction of synthetic phonics."

'Broad approach'

It adds: "Phonics materials are being assessed externally and approved at departmental level and linked to a matched funding stream.

"Additionally the matched funding stream is only available to those approved products purchased through one supplier appointed to the catalogue of resources.

"The message appears to be that if educational professionals want to take advantage of matched funding, they have to buy from only a small range of products and only from one source.

"The financial incentive will be very strong and will be hard to ignore for many cash-strapped schools."

The report says: "This is in contrast to many teachers' experience that a broad-ranging approach to literacy, alongside one-to-one tuition is most effective."

Instead schools should be free to choose their own resources to suit the literacy needs of their pupils, the MPs' report argues.

'Reading for pleasure'

It says: "There should be no government prescription of resources, and funding should be given directly to the professionals to deal with their school's literacy issues, for example, targeted support for a wide range of programmes that have been proven to work such as Reading Recovery."

It also argues that schools should have a whole-school approach to reading, in which teachers and parents are encouraged to work together.

This way children should learn that reading is for meaning and enjoyment as well as an essential skill.

And it says there is still a need for reading to be encouraged in the early years of secondary school, when teenagers are starting to become independent readers.

"The active encouragement of reading for pleasure should be a core part of every child's curriculum entitlement because extensive reading and exposure to a wide range of texts make a huge contribution to students' educational achievement," it adds.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb said studies showed the systematic teaching of synthetic phonics was the best way to teach basic reading skills, especially to those aged five to seven.

"It is vital that we focus on the reading skills of children early on in their lives and give those who are struggling the extra help they need to enable them to go on to enjoy a lifetime's love of reading rather than a lifelong struggle.

"Schools have the option of applying for match-funding to buy approved products and training to help them teach high-quality systematic synthetic phonics."

Responding to the report, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) accused the government of adopting a "heavy-handed" approach and a "one-size-fits-all" policy.

"Yet again we see a blatant disregard for the opinion of teachers and a total lack of trust in their judgement," she said.

"Synthetic phonics is not the Holy Grail when it comes to the teaching of reading.

"As this report warns, being prescriptive about teaching methods for reading can alienate children from this process."

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