Promoting phonics mastery and reducing the attainment gap in the South West

Excalibur Teaching School

 1. Overview

The project aimed to promote phonics mastery and to reduce the gap in attainment between advantaged and disadvantaged learners in 52 schools across Wiltshire, Swindon and South Gloucestershire. The schools selected for support had phonics outcomes below the national average (by up to 5%) and outcomes for disadvantaged children well below the national average (by up to 16%).

The key intended outcomes were:

  1. Increased staff knowledge of and confidence in teaching phonics

  2. Strengthened leadership of phonics in the supported schools

  3. Improved overall attainment in phonics (measured by the phonics screening check and by attainment at the end of the reception year), and a narrowing of the gap between disadvantaged children and others

The project set out to achieve this by:

  1. Developing a high level of staff expertise in phonics through CPD and support from SLEs (each supported school would identify both a teacher to develop as a ‘phonics champion’ and a teaching assistant to develop as a phonics lead)

  2. Establishing a network of hubs to lead and coordinate the work of the project, with hub leaders reporting to the project lead

  3. Supporting disadvantaged children to make progress in phonics through bespoke classroom interventions, and through the implementation of strategies to increase parental engagement in their learning.

The training modules and resources developed by the project would be made available both to supported schools and to schools from outside the programme.

2. Good practice to share with others interested in running school improvement projects to ensure projects deliver the intended outcome.

The project lead notes that:

  1. Ensuring that schools had funding to cover supply costs was imperative to the success of the project, especially as budgets in schools are very tight.
  2. Appointing phonics champions within schools to drive phonics was successful as long as they were strong teachers of phonics in the first place.
  3. SLEs supporting phonics champions with leading and monitoring phonics to ensure that there was consistency and accountability within and across schools.
  4. School SLTs needed to engage with the project to ensure that the profile of phonics was raised within the school and that all staff were held accountable.
  • It was preferable to collect raw data (rather than data pre-analysed/pre-summarised by individual schools). Otherwise, due to variations in practice and experience of analysis, data often needed to be tracked back.

3. Lessons learned - What the project may do differently in the future

The project lead makes the following recommendations and comments for those designing future projects:

  1. Ensure that there is a budget for mitigation due to the high volume of staff turnover in schools. New staff needed training (including SLEs) and this wasn't budgeted for. There were a large number of new staff in the second year who needed to attend training but unfortunately, due to budget restrictions, not all of the schools were able to release staff to attend training.
  2. The hub model worked but the hub leads were not solely focused on the project due to other commitments and the immensity of their teaching school role. This meant that deadlines were not always met.
  3. Ensure that the phonics champion (or person leading the project within the school setting) is confident in what they are doing, a strong leader and knowledgeable in that subject area.
  4. If there is an area that is a primary focus, for example disadvantaged learners, ensure that there is an extra intervention in place just for these pupils.
  5. Setting ambitious data targets at 100%, although aspirational, can be difficult to meet. An expectation of 85% would have been more realistic.
  6. Collecting data and information for 52 schools is challenging and time- consuming. It would have been useful to have had a main data collection point, to which everyone could have submitted data online. Data was not always calculated correctly and only a small percentage of schools met data deadlines. Visits from SLEs could have been planned at each data collection point to ensure deadlines were met.

4. Sustainability measures taken by the project to ensure improvement are sustained beyond the funding period

Specific sustainability measures centre mainly around links with the local English Hub schools.

The project director has been communicating closely with the English Hub schools (two of which are involved with the SSIF project) to ensure that phonics remains a priority in the supported schools. Some of the schools involved with the project are also receiving support or funding from the English Hubs. Those schools that are not involved with the English Hubs will continue to use some of the interventions and strategies developed and implemented by the project.

The project website (which has resources developed by and used during the project) went live in January 2018 and can be accessed by schools across the UK.