Validated Systematic Synthetic Phonics Programmes - Which One, When?
Estimated Reading Time - 7 minutes
If I think back to this time last year, the words ‘Validated Systematic Synthetic Phonics Programme’ had only recently arrived in our inboxes. Now, one year on, we are in a better position to reflect on the offerings that are now available thanks to a flurry of activity from many well-known, and lesser-known, publishers and providers. However, with such a long list of phonics programmes on offer, all meeting the DfE’s sixteen criteria, how are schools meant to decide whether to switch, and if so, when is the best time to do so?
This blog will review the DfE’s sixteen validation criteria and consider how these can be used to audit your current provision. It will then focus on three different scenarios to help you decide whether to switch to a validated programme and how quickly you need to make that change.
Schools using the DfE’s Letters and Sounds programme will know that it does not represent a complete scheme of learning. Instead, it offers a trajectory to give structure and progression to the teaching of phonics, with suggested activities; it does not provide the lesson resources, support for pupils falling behind, or come with a phonically decodable reading scheme. Rather than the DfE revising Letters and Sounds, they have chosen to validate Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) programmes which meet certain criteria.
Do we have to use one of the validated SSP programmes though?
Well, the short answer is – no! Or, in the DfE’s own words:
There is no statutory requirement for schools to choose one of the SSP programmes on the validated list. However, validation status indicates that a programme has been self-assessed by its publisher and judged by a small panel with relevant expertise and that both consider it to meet all of the Department for Education (DfE) criteria for an effective systematic synthetic phonics programme.
And what is The Education People's advice?
Schools are strongly advised to assess their phonics provision carefully, and if it is not delivering strong results for pupils, to switch to a validated programme.
But how do you carry out a thorough assessment of your phonics provision?
The Validation Panel Guidance to Programme Providers and Developers gives a helpful summary of the DfE’s expectations of any programme that has made its way onto the validated SSP list:
https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/phonics-teaching-materials-core-criteria-and-self-assessment/submitting-phonics-programmes-for-validation-application-form-guidance. It also serves to highlight some of the concerns that the DfE has about the teaching of early reading, many of which are shared by Ofsted. All of this provides helpful clues as to what we should be looking out for when auditing current provision and practice.
Of course there is another, fairly recent addition to our bookshelves that should be referred to when considering the effectiveness of the teaching of early reading: The Reading Framework (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-reading-framework-teaching-the-foundations-of-literacy). This document came out in July 2021 and pulls together some of the key research around effective early reading practices, as well as offering advice, guidance and resources to support schools and the wider community to teach all pupils to read.
A third tool that can prove very useful for auditing provision is the DfE’s sixteen criteria by which it has judged each of the applicants’ SSP programmes. You can find them here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/phonics-teaching-materials-core-criteria-and-self-assessment/validation-of-systematic-synthetic-phonics-programmes-supporting-documentation.
In deciding if, and when, your school should make the switch to one of the validated SSP programmes, you need to consider the following:
Schools who should look to switch urgently (meeting one or more of these criteria):
Schools who could wait until all of the validation cycles are complete in Summer 2022 (meeting ALL of these criteria):
Schools who may not need to switch at all (meeting ALL of these criteria):
- Currently in an Ofsted category (RI/SM)
- Currently rated good or better but SEF suggests this may no longer be the case.
- Phonics results below National (82% in 2019)
- No fidelity to one scheme
- Reading books are not phonically decodable and / or do not align with the GPC teaching sequence in the school’s scheme
- Currently rated good or better
- Phonics results similar to National (82% in 2019)
- Fidelity to one scheme so there is a clear progression of learning
- Phonically decodable books align to the scheme and introduce the GPCs in the same order as the teaching sequence
- Currently rated good or better
- Phonics results above National (82% in 2019)
- Lowest 20% making strong progress and catching up with age-related expectations
- Current phonics programme meets all of the Department for Education (DfE) criteria
- Research the most appropriate validated SSP programme for your school.
- Consider the ease with which the new scheme can be introduced to staff and the training required in addition the cost (ongoing subscriptions and the cost of a new reading scheme if additional).
- Become familiar with the SSP programmes on the current validated lists.
- Consider which programme offers best value for money but will also cause least disruption to teaching and learning when introduced.
- Become familiar with the SSP programmes on the current validated lists.
- Continue to monitor the effectiveness of the existing scheme and consider whether it continues to secure best outcomes for pupils.
- Develop a confident, evidence-backed argument to share with stakeholders, explaining the reasons for not switching to one of the validated SSP programmes at present.
So, having considered your data over time and observed teaching and learning, you might conclude that there is room for improvement and it is appropriate to switch to a validated programme.
Questions to consider when choosing a new SSP programme:
Most SSP providers offer free introductory online training so that you can get a sense of what the programme offers and how it is structured. This is a good starting point for your research so do sign up your SLT, Phonics Lead and English Subject Leader and teachers to help you make an informed decision. You may also find the following questions helpful in guiding your choice:
- If you don’t have one core phonics programme in place, do you have a particular reading scheme that you have bought into which aligns to one of the validated SSP programmes?
- Does the cost of the SSP programme you are considering purchasing include decodable books, if your current scheme is not a match?
- Is training included in the cost? Is this face-to-face or online? Can staff access the training at a time to suit them and revisit it as necessary?
- Is the cost one-off or an annual subscription? If it is a subscription, it will be important to budget for this each year to ensure the SSP programme can continue to be used, rather than needing to switch because of pressures on finances.
- Is the website easy to navigate for staff to locate the resources they need to access to teach?
- Do you have a large number of pupils working below age-related expectations in phonics? How does the SSP programme cater for pupils who have fallen behind? Is there a separate ‘catch up’ intervention resource or can the programme be used as an intervention? Can this be used in KS2 for pupils who are still not able to phonically decode?
If you currently follow Letters and Sounds, you may prefer to move to an SSP programme that is based on the teaching sequence that teachers and teaching assistants are already familiar with.
If you don’t have one core phonics programme in place, do you have a particular reading scheme that you have bought into which aligns to one of the validated SSP programmes?
Does the cost of the SSP programme you are considering purchasing include decodable books, if your current scheme is not a match?
Is training included in the cost? Is this face-to-face or online? Can staff access the training at a time to suit them and revisit it as necessary?
Is the cost one-off or an annual subscription? If it is a subscription, it will be important to budget for this each year to ensure the SSP programme can continue to be used, rather than needing to switch because of pressures on finances.
Is the website easy to navigate for staff to locate the resources they need to access to teach?
Do you have a large number of pupils working below age-related expectations in phonics? How does the SSP programme cater for pupils who have fallen behind? Is there a separate ‘catch up’ intervention resource or can the programme be used as an intervention? Can this be used in KS2 for pupils who are still not able to phonically decode?
To enable you to compare the different validated programmes that are on offer more easily, The Education People have created a guidance document that explores each scheme’s offer in relation to the following key areas for consideration:
- Does it follow the Letters & Sounds teaching sequence?
- Does it provide intervention support?
- Does it include phonically decodable texts?
- Is training offered?
- What costs are involved: subscriptions and other costs?
You can access the The Education People’s Phonics Guidance document for schools by typing bit.ly/TEPSSPguide into your internet browser or click on this link: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/19YVEs2fY6zhy6p5XbBzI7T1ousnh5c7V?usp=sharing
With many of the programmes costing a significant sum of money, some requiring annual investment, this is not a decision to be taken lightly or in undue haste, unless your circumstances demand it. Our best piece of advice is – do your homework!
1. Keep an eye on the validated list (which is due to be updated again by the end of summer 2022).
2. Use the link (bit.ly/TEPSSPguide) to download our Phonics Guidance document, which will be updated following the publication of the revised list.
3. Shortlist the programmes that you feel would be the best ‘fit’ for your school.
4. Join a webinar to find out more! Most SSP providers are offering free introductory sessions to walk you through their scheme.
5. Check your local English Hub’s website to see if they are offering any ‘Phonics Showcase’ events. For example, Kingsnorth in Kent have teamed up with other Hubs to offer both face-to-face and virtual showcase events: https://www.kingsnorth.kent.sch.uk/showcase
If you would like support to audit your phonics provision and make a decision about the right route for your school, contact [email protected] and ask to be put in touch with our English Improvement Advisers who offer both virtual and physical appointments.
Before moving to Kent, Sarah lived in West Berkshire and led improvement in a range of areas including SEND, Maths and Literacy and Early Years (Communication, Language and Development). Sarah is passionate that pupils receive the very best teaching possible, and keeps her knowledge of the latest pedagogic research and developments up to date in order that she can pass that knowledge on to assist others.
She leads in-school support and training in all elements of literacy and maths.
Sarah specialises in:
English subject knowledge:
- reading and phonics
- grammar, punctuation and spelling.
Maths subject knowledge:
- using manipulatives from EYFS to Year 6
- developing fluency, reasoning and problem solving
- promoting opportunities to work at greater depth.
Subject Leader support and development:
- joint learning walks and work scrutiny.