Ofsted offers guidance on literacy

Written by: HTU | Published:

Ofsted’s latest literacy report talks of too little improvement across England’s primary schools and has been published alongside hints of an increase in the key stage 2 target. Suzanne O’Connell reports

‘I am determined that Ofsted will focus more sharply on literacy in our inspections, and I am proposing 10 specific steps to raise national standards in literacy.”

This is the call to action from Sir Michael Wilshaw’s speech on the need for rapid improvement in literacy. Sir Michael peppers his speeches with strong language. His favourite words make an appearance – “good leadership”, “passionate”, “high standards”, “no-excuses”, “determined”, “focus more sharply”.

He refers for his ammunition to the most recent Ofsted report on English, Moving English Forward: Action to raise standards in English (March 2012). The report takes its findings from 268 maintained schools in England, 133 of which were primary, and it is critical of the standards currently achieved.

Areas of concern

Primary schools are criticised more than secondary schools in the report. It accuses them of making “too little improvement” and claims that there is not enough outstanding teaching. The main criticism seems to be levelled at the teaching of writing and the gaps in knowledge of some English co-ordinators. Other main areas of concern include:

• Transition between key stage 2 and 3.

• Lack of thought around ways of encouraging a love of reading.

• A focus on a narrow range of test or examination skills.

• Too little attention on spelling and handwriting.

• Insufficient opportunity to develop independent learning.

• Gaps between girls’ and boys’ achievement, especially in writing.

• Poor performance by pupils eligible for free school meals.

• Planning that is detailed and lacks flexibility and focuses on the learning outcomes.

There is clear criticism of the overly fast pace and crammed lessons that some of our schools have developed over the past few years. The report criticises aspects of the frenetic lesson such as:

• Too fast a pace with a constrained use of time.

• Too many activities, with teachers feeling they need to leap from one to another.

• Over-detailed and bureaucratic lesson plans.

• Inflexible approaches to planning lessons.

• Limited time for students to work independently.

• Constant review of learning at the expense of time spent on learning.

However, inspectors were positive about the use of phonics in primary schools, considering that “strengths of teaching far outweighed weaknesses”. In which case, if the government’s assertions about the benefits of teaching synthetic phonics are correct, there should be no problems with pupils’ literacy by the time this group reaches secondary school.

Ten actions

The report refers to 10 actions to raise standards including:

• That the Department for Education should:

1. Publish research on the teaching of writing.

2. Help increase the number of specialist English teachers in primary schools and improve the subject knowledge of existing English co-ordinators.

• That all schools should:

3. Develop policies to promote reading for enjoyment.

4. Ensure that preparation for national tests and examinations is appropriate, does not begin too early and does not limit the range of the curriculum or creativity.

5. Improve transition and continuity in curriculum and assessment between key stages 2 and 3.

6. Simplify lesson plans in English to concentrate on the key learning objectives and encourage greater flexibility.

• That nursery and primary schools should also:

7. Develop a structured programme for improving children’s communication skills in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS).

8. Secure pupils’ early reading skills by the end of key stage 1.

• That secondary schools should:

9. Ensure that the English curriculum at key stage 3 has a clear and distinct purpose that is explained to students and engages students with the world beyond the classroom.

10. Strengthen whole-school literacy work across all departments.

Sir Michael’s 10 steps

The 10 actions of the report should not be confused with the 10 steps of Sir Michael’s literacy speech.

Step 1: We will tighten our registration arrangements for early years providers to ensure that they are properly trained to deliver the EYFS goals. Good and outstanding providers should play a larger part in sharing their expertise across the sector, especially with childminders.

Step 2: The government should consider whether the present Level 4 standard at the end of key stage 2 is sufficiently high for successful progression to secondary school.

Step 3: Schools should report to parents on their child’s reading age alongside information on national curriculum levels. Parents should see the correlation between chronological and reading ages.

Step 4: From September, Ofsted will prioritise for inspection schools with the lowest achievement levels in literacy.

Step 5: We will reinforce and further embed our present inspection practice of hearing children read. We will inspect schools’ assessment systems to ensure that careful monitoring and effective intervention take place.

Step 6: In colleges and work-based learning, we will give even greater emphasis to the inspection of literacy skills, as part of our inspection of programmes of study.

Step 7: We will sharpen our focus on phonics in our routine inspections of all initial teacher education provision – primary, secondary and further education.

Step 8: In addition, it is unlikely that any provider of primary initial teacher education will be judged outstanding unless the quality of its phonics training is also outstanding.

Step 9: We will also commence a series of unannounced inspections focused solely on the training of phonics teaching in providers of primary initial teacher education. These phonics-focused inspections could trigger a full inspection where weaknesses are found.

Step 10: We will publish a detailed survey of what works best in secondary schools to improve literacy across the curriculum.


Sir Michael has taken the findings in the report and presents them as actions for policy-makers. Not satisfied with this, his speech includes the immediate steps that he intends to take through his inspectors.

He continues in the style we have become accustomed to, presenting an autocratic and dogmatic approach to an issue he has identified. The attack on lower Level 4s will feel particularly harsh for primary schools.

There are many reasons why pupils achieving a low Level 4 may not have achieved a grade C in GCSE English. One of them being that perhaps they weren’t a “secure” Level 4 at all.

Primary schools do their utmost to ensure that as many pupils as possible pass this fabricated threshold. Breadth of learning may sometimes be sacrificed for a Level 4 outcome.

As the report ironically points out, this unproductive focusing on test and examination results actually limits the development of the broader range of English skills and knowledge.

To make the floor target harder to achieve won’t ensure more literate or book-loving pupils but will increase the pressure on primary schools to get their pupils to perform at all costs.

There are many contradictions and tensions between the report findings, its recommendations and the current education climate. It is ironic that one of the criticisms made might be linked to teachers’ and schools’ anxiety to be more than satisfactory.

The report said: “The quality of pupils’ learning was hampered in weaker lessons by a number of ‘myths’ about what makes a good lesson. The factors that most commonly limited learning included: an excessive pace, an overloading of activities, inflexible planning, and limited time for pupils to work independently.”

These are not necessarily myths. Or at least they weren’t sold to schools as such. Through programmes such as the Intensifying Support Programme (ISP) schools were required to follow a menu of non-negotiables that they were told inspectors were looking for. In an effort to please, teachers were instructed to deliver a core content for every lesson, a recipe that is now proving to be their downfall and is criticised in this report.

In spite of assertions to the opposite, there is still government and Ofsted interference in teaching method. It is unlikely that the blanket implementation of synthetic phonics will help schools to develop a love of reading in their pupils. Nor will the use of the phonics test inspire teachers and pupils with the importance of reading for meaning. Schools are still being dictated to and are increasingly constrained by the fear of not doing the right thing.

The picture is not clear when it comes to standards. After several pages of analysis the report concludes with, “in summary, there is a variation in trends of attainment in English across different key stages”. This tells us nothing but that it is difficult to understand what is really happening in relation to English and literacy in our schools.

That does not stop those in charge making strong statements about performance and achievement. They are happy to draw conclusions that suite their purposes but may have little to do with the children we see in our classrooms and the underlying problems they encounter when learning to be literate.


Sir Michael’s Raising Standards in Literacy speech.

The full Ofsted report, Moving English Forward.

• Suzanne O’Connell is a former primary school headteacher.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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