According to coalition policy, phonics is the undisputed champion of methods used to teach children to read, and schools have been told in no uncertain terms that they must embrace it with gusto.
Now those training the next generation of teachers will face strict penalties if they do not make sure that their students can properly use the teaching method. From this September, Ofsted will send emergency inspectors to courses where trainees complain about their phonics training. Any “significant dissatisfaction” will trigger a visit from the inspectorate.
It is a sign of the importance the government has placed on teachers being able to use phonics effectively - no other problems with training spark urgent intervention from Ofsted.
The policy has angered those who run teacher training courses. They are unhappy that the views of former students could set an inspection in motion. The survey will be taken months after the students finish their course, by which time, course leaders say, they might have been heavily influenced by their new workplace.
Every February, the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) questions NQTs. They are asked about all parts of their course, including how good it was at preparing them to teach reading, phonics and comprehension.
If students rate this aspect poorly for two consecutive years, and results are much lower than those for other courses, Ofsted inspectors will carry out a “focused” visit that will concentrate purely on phonics training.
The idea has not gone down well.
“This is a consumer satisfaction survey - that’s different from a qualitative judgement,” said Martin Thompson, chair of the National Association of School-Based Teacher Trainers. “I also think it is dodgy comparing institutions without having an empirical measure.
“Of course, we don’t question the importance of phonics or the need for training to be better. We are not arguing that nothing should be done or that everything is rosy, just that this data needs more unpicking.”
Previously, only staff from the TDA, the government agency that manages teacher training, had intervened when university phonics teaching was found to be ineffective.
In 2007, just 38 per cent of primary NQTs surveyed by the TDA said that their phonics training had been good or very good. The government and universities took action and introduced a “red-amber-green” rating for a number of areas, including phonics. Green providers - which have the best survey results - were invited to help those with red and amber ratings.
It appeared to work. In 2011, some 11 per cent of NQTs said that their phonics training had been poor, down from 23 per cent in 2007. A total of 58 per cent said that it had been good or very good.
Academics at the University of Huddersfield, a green provider, have been asked to help others to improve their courses. “Phonics is a central element of the course. Students know it’s a national priority and how important it is,” said Jonathan Glazzard, early years and primary education course leader.
“I do not think these inspections will be supportive or helpful to teacher trainers. The NQT survey often has low responses from students, so in my opinion a red rating doesn’t mean the provision is poor.”
The government, unsurprisingly, defended the new initiative. “Ofsted will decide which primary providers will receive a monitoring visit, drawing on a range of data to ensure fairness and consistency,” a spokesman said. “This will include, but will not be limited to, results of the Teaching Agency’s NQT survey.”
The government wants initial teacher training programmes to place “greater emphasis” on teaching reading using systematic phonics.
Ofsted’s proposal for changes to inspection from this September says inspectors will judge whether “training enables trainees on primary and early years training programmes to develop their knowledge, understanding and expertise in using systematic phonics to teach reading so that they are confident and competent in teaching reading and language skills by the end of their training”.
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