Blog post - CLPE’s response to the OfstedEnglish subject report
Created: 12th March, 2024

At the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE), we know that literacy is an essential life skill and believe in every child’s right to be literate. As the leading subject association for primary literacy, all our work is based on 50 years of practice and research, bringing expertise and support for primary schools in their teaching of literacy. 

We always welcome new research and reports in this field that add to the evidence of what we know works and support our goal to help teachers and schools provide the best learning experiences and thus life chances for their children. We also look at any report published within a broad view of the wider evidence and research available on what is most effective in the teaching of English.   

Ofsted’s Telling the Story report shares important messages about the value of a high-quality English curriculum, the vital contribution that English makes to pupils’ learning, the value of drama and spoken language outcomes, the importance of pupils being exposed to a wide variety of high-quality texts and the value of building a reading culture - all of which lie at the heart of our work. 

However, Ofsted also highlights key areas of concern, which we feel need unpicking: 

A ‘marked improvement in reading’:  

The report claims that there is ‘a marked improvement in reading’ whilst also observing children’s continued underachievement in reading, writing and spoken language, with ‘over 1 in 4 pupils still [moving] to secondary school without having met the expected standard in the Key Stage 2 national reading test.’ 

We must, therefore, ask ourselves whether the current mandated approaches are really making the difference in children’s long-term attainment in reading. What we also need to recognise is that, in both the PIRLS 2021 assessment and the National Literacy Trust survey, we find that children’s engagement with and enjoyment of reading is of significant concern. If we are not simultaneously raising attainment and engagement in all aspects of reading for all children, then we must re-evaluate whether policy is fit for purpose.   

Teacher’s knowledge of ‘how to teach pupils to read: 

Ofsted are pleased that ‘schools have invested in phonics programmes and training so that teachers know how to teach pupils to read’, whilst sharing concerns that ‘beyond phonics, there is little training for primary teachers to build their professional knowledge about English literature and language.’; that ‘Once pupils are able to read accurately, schools are less clear about how to build fluency and comprehension.’  

In addition, they observe a disconnect between reading, writing and spoken language in literacy teaching and in the English curriculum in schools, despite teachers understanding ‘that spoken language underpins pupils’ reading and writing development.’ 

In our view, this would suggest that current policy is not sufficiently developing a full knowledge and understanding of reading - what reading involves, what to teach, the best teaching approaches and how to effectively assess children’s reading. Learning to read is a complex endeavour, which forms part of a wider process of learning to be literate. It involves children’s language(s), their environment, including texts and models for reading, and is intrinsically linked with development in writing.  

Phonological knowledge, including the skills of how to isolate, segment and blend phonemes, is important, but this alone will not make a child a reader. Reading begins from birth, it is a search for meaning; from understanding that we use language to communicate our thoughts, feelings, experiences and knowledge and from the very first encounters with written texts - understanding the purposes of these and the pleasures that can be experienced from engaging with high-quality children’s books, and recognising how these provide models for both reading fluency when shared by engaged adults and inspiration and ideas for writing of their own.    

We know that many experienced teachers and leaders share these views; that the narrow approach to early reading prescribed is not supporting children to become well-rounded, literate individuals. It fails to support them in developing all aspects of reading and writing from the beginning, with a rich enough range of texts and teaching approaches to develop language, build fluency and comprehension, and to support children to craft writing from the earliest stages. 

The impact of assessment on Teaching and Learning: 

Whilst citing statistics from several national (end of key stage) and international (PISA) assessments, the report observes that ‘In both primary and secondary schools, continuous professional development (CPD) focuses mainly on assessment and moderation practices. As a result, some teachers have a disjointed and narrow understanding of the subject.’ 

We know from our interactions with schools and teachers that the level of centralisation and prescription of what is taught and how, which is outlined in the curriculum, tested in the Phonics Screening Check and the statutory assessments at the end of each Key Stage and inspected by Ofsted is directly affecting how English is taught. This has a direct bearing on the choices made in terms of CPD and in the teaching of English and limits the ability to take risks and explore alternative approaches.

Leaders and teachers in schools are concerned that they, and certainly teachers new to the profession, are becoming deskilled and lack autonomy and agency. This follows years of curriculum, budget and professional development focus on one aspect of reading and writing development – phonics - and the messaging that every other aspect is to be taught separately or after accuracy is achieved.  

We know that teachers are frustrated by the system within which they teach literacy, a system they have not created and one that does not provide children with all the skills they need to become lifelong readers and writers.  

What’s the alternative?: 

Leaders and teachers in our Associate Schools have first-hand, lived experience of the benefit of a cohesive approach to Literacy on children’s engagement and attainment. 

They cite the clear benefits of strong English teaching through our Power of Reading programme: choosing and using the best children’s books from our wide range of recommendations; using these to engage readers and to teach reading skills and strategies; contextualising knowledge of phonics, spelling, grammar and punctuation; and recognising the lessons and inspiration such texts give children in learning how to write. 

When schools are given the opportunity to engage with us at CLPE through our training programmes, they have an opportunity to build a cohesive curriculum; a curriculum that builds teacher expertise in what reading and writing actually involve and how to ensure children make progress to become literate whilst maintaining engagement and enthusiasm; a curriculum that introduces teachers and children to the richest and most relevant children’s literature being published today. Books that ignite in children the pleasures of reading, support and motivate them to want to read independently, show them what well-crafted written language can do for them as readers, and inspire them to bring this into their own writing.  

Our Reading and Writing Scales support schools to understand what reading and writing involve and how they develop, to assess all aspects of reading and writing and use the next steps guidance within these to develop practice and provision that ensures progress for learners at every stage of learning, not just to meet the needs of statutory tests. 

We, and our Associate Schools, know this works. The evidence consistently demonstrates the impact of our approach in improving progress, closing attainment gaps between boys and girls and disadvantaged pupils and their peers, and increasing children’s motivation to read and write independently.*  

We hope Ofsted’s report opens a much-needed dialogue with schools around the impact of a politicised and narrow literacy curriculum.  We hope that it leads to schools being provided the agency and opportunity to engage with subject associations like ours, so that they can benefit from the expertise, research and teaching resources we offer. 

We also hope that it enables policy makers to reflect on how the curriculum, assessment and inspection systems could be developed in the future to create policy and practices which better take the needs of children into account, are evidence informed and built on rigorous consensus between a wide range of stakeholders to achieve effective and sustainable change and a vision for English, which leads to a meaningful closure of disadvantage gaps, truly enabling every child to become literate. 

*Power of Reading Evaluation: Leeds Trinity University (2018)

Power of Reading in the Early Years Evaluation: Institute of Employment Studies (2023)

Power of Pictures Evaluation: Education Endowment Foundation (2019).