EEF phonics study ‘should be interpreted with caution’

The Education Endowment Foundation’s £1m evaluation of two popular phonics programmes has been plagued with difficulties

Today (11 October) sees publication of the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) troubled report into two writing and reading programmes for young children, with the headline findings forming only part of the story.

The £1 million evaluation concluded that, compared to a control group, children using the Read Write Inc. Phonics (RWI) programme made a month’s additional progress.

Meanwhile, users of Fresh Start – targeted at children below their expected reading age in years five-eight – were found to fall at least two months behind their peers.

The trial began in 2016, with by Queens University Belfast recruiting 131 schools with high numbers of disadvantaged pupils and low prior attainment.

Sixty-six schools were randomly assigned to the intervention group, while the remaining 65 carried on with their usual teaching and assumed control group status.

Comprehensiveness and cost notwithstanding, the trial has been so plagued by difficulties that the EEF itself is urging that the results “should be interpreted with caution”.

Regarding the RWI trial, the EEF said: “High numbers of pupils from the designated delivery schools were not included in the final analysis due to factors such as day to day absence, pupils moving schools, or teachers withdrawing pupils from testing due to concerns about the level of difficulty of the assessment used.”

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Evaluators found evidence that pupils eligible for free school meals made three months more progress than peers not offered the programme, but “this finding is less secure than the results for all pupils because it’s based on a smaller group of pupils”.

In the Fresh Start trial, more than a third of schools (35%) didn’t deliver the programme at all, while 29% failed to deliver it to all of their eligible pupils. A further 12% of schools didn’t provide enough data for the evaluators to know whether or not they were delivering Fresh Start.

“This included teachers not having enough time or physical space to deliver the sessions, as well as the 2016 Fresh Start training material and handbook being less comprehensive than those provided for Read Write inc. Phonics,” said the EEF.

“Additionally, recruitment of schools to the evaluation was led by a third party rather than by Ruth Miskin Training. Ruth Miskin Training staff interviewed as part of the evaluation felt that this change from their usual practice may have contributed to implementation issues.”

On top of these issues, a planned second trial – to evaluate RWI’s delivery through the Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund – was shelved having been “significantly disrupted” by the pandemic. Instead, the EEF will publish a “lessons learned” report.

The EEF was established in 2011 by the Sutton Trust, following a 2010 announcement by the-then education secretary, Michael Gove, of plans to establish an education endowment foundation to help raise standards in challenging schools.

Together, the EEF and Sutton Trust are the government-designated What Works Centre for improving education outcomes for school-aged children.

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