In this series of articles, we are looking at Ofsted inspectors’ comments regarding 80 “good” schools.

This article examines the importance of phonics.


Under the new Ofsted framework, Amanda Spielman has stated that there will be a focus on early reading and the teaching of phonics in primary schools. However, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t already a focus.

Year 1 compared to the National Average

Ofsted inspectors found that, generally in these “good” schools, the attainment of phonics was at or above the National Average – in 6 of these 80 schools, it was “well above” average:

In 2018, the proportion of pupils in Year 1 achieving the expected standard in the phonics screening check increased considerably, and is now well above average.

The proportion of pupils who achieve the expected standard in the Year 1 phonics screening check is above the national average, and has been for the past three years.

When this hasn’t happened, inspectors want to know that the school is on top of the reasons for this:

In 2018, the proportion of Year 1 pupils meeting the standard in phonics fell below the national average. Leaders have identified the reasons for this. They have put clear plans in place to ensure that the very large majority of the current Year 1 pupils meet the standard in 2019.

…below the national average. However, there were high levels of mobility within this year group, which affected standards. Those pupils who started at the school in Reception achieved a higher score, as they benefited from good phonics teaching over time.

In the past, a below-average proportion of pupils reached the expected standard in the national phonics screening check. However, after a review and a change of systems, teaching has started to impact favourably on outcomes.

There was a sharp dip at the end of 2018 and fewer pupils achieved this milestone. Leaders wasted no time in evaluating the reason for this. They have improved the school’s approach to teaching phonics and the frequency with which they check that the quality of teaching and the progress pupils make. Pupils of all ages now make good use of their phonic knowledge when they read and spell words.

and occasionally inspectors note the pupils’ low starting points. However, this isn’t often for “good” schools.

The proportion of pupils reaching the expected standard in the phonics screening check is improving over time and approaching the national average. Given pupils’ low starting points, this indicates they are making good progress.

The proportion of pupils reaching the expected standard in the phonics screening check in 2018 was lower than the national average, but represented good progress for this group of pupils.

However, a one-off decrease, whilst noted, does not stop schools from becoming “good”, especially if they were at or above the National average the year before:

However, results of the Year 1 phonics screening check declined slightly in 2018 and are below the national average.

Results dipped a little in 2018 due to a larger proportion of pupils who were at an early stage of learning English.

Inspectors have also commented on the reasons for any improvement:

This is the result of leaders ensuring that teachers and support staff had intensive training last year on the teaching of phonics.

They clearly enjoy reading, and senior leaders have ensured that a wide variety of good-quality reading materials are available to them.

A successful focus by leaders on improving the teaching of phonics…

The introduction of systematic phonics teaching in key stage 1 last year led to a significant rise in the proportion of Year 1 pupils reaching the expected standard in the phonics screening check. However, pupils are still not consistently successful in using these skills to read and spell.

Phonics provision is a strength of the school. Younger pupils are able to use what they have learned in phonics lessons to help them decode difficult words, even resorting to sharing songs with the inspector to help remember key elements to help them read.

Only in 2 instances of these 80 schools did the inspectors comment about how disadvantaged pupils were doing – the rest of the time, inspectors have commented on the school results as a whole:

Nearly all Year 1 pupils reached the expected standard in the Year 1 phonics screening check in 2018, including disadvantaged pupils and those who have SEN and/or disabilities.

More disadvantaged pupils reached the required standard in the phonics screening check in 2018 than in the previous year.

Outside of Year 1

Inspectors also look at those pupils who did not achieve the expected standard at the end of Year 1:

Pupils who are struggling are given the help that they need to catch up quickly in Year 2.

Pupils who are struggling to gain phonics skills are swiftly identified and given the help they need to catch up quickly.

Pupils who took the phonics check again at the end of Year 2 in 2018 all made gains on their previous outcomes. Inspection evidence gathered about these pupils now that they are in Year 3 shows that the school has been successful in further developing the reading skills of this small group of pupils so that they can access the full curriculum.

However, pupils who did not meet the expected standard are on track to catch up, due to good teaching. Evidence of these pupils’ application of phonics skills can be seen in their writing across a range of subjects.

Have you made an analysis of pupils who retook the Phonics screen test in year 2, and found how they have progressed – i.e. how many more words they can read?

Inspectors can also look at phonics in Early Years, and how this leads on to a successful Year 1:

As in the rest of the school, adults in the early years are skilled in developing children’s confidence and accuracy in communicating orally. This supports the children’s rapid development in phonics, which, in turn, helps their reading and writing development.

This is a result of securely good phonics teaching across Reception and key stage 1. Pupils engage in lively, challenging work and enjoy reading a range of books.

…leaders have ensured that key stage 1 and early years staff are trained well to deliver focused and effective phonics lessons. From Reception Year upwards, pupils now show a strong and developing ability to apply their phonics knowledge when reading and writing new words.

However, the discussion of phonics is not just limited to the Year 1 standard.

They also look at a deeper standard, and how this leads, hopefully with success, in later years:

Older and most-able pupils secure the skills they need to deepen their appreciation of books and to consider authors’ intentions.

This means they are well prepared to develop more-complex reading skills from an early age. This has led to improved outcomes in reading at both key stages 1 and 2.

They apply this knowledge well to read unknown words, enabling them to become competent readers. Older pupils enjoy reading across the range of fiction and nonfiction literature available to them and demonstrate good levels of understanding.

However, once pupils have met this [Year 1 phonics] standard, there is a slight dip in how they then use and apply these skills consistently in reading. A small number of pupils have reading books which are not matched well to their reading ages.

We hope that you have enjoyed this article.

This series examines the comments of Ofsted Inspectors from 80 full inspections of schools which were deemed to be “good”.

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