As you may be aware, the DfE have announced that they are beginning a new process of validating phonics programmes. They have said that the original Letters and Sounds document from 2007 will not achieve validation. Obviously, this has been quite concerning for schools who are currently happily and successfully using Letters and Sounds (2007) and has understandably caused a fair bit of confusion and stress. Fortunately, the DfE have clarified their position further in a recent blog post.
Our understanding of the situation is as follows:
The DfE are launching a new process to validate what they are calling Full Synthetic Phonics Programmes. Their position is that full programmes are programmes that come complete with support, resources, training and decodable books as part of the package. Since Letters and Sounds doesn’t come with all these elements built in, it will not be able to be included as a validated full synthetic phonics programme.
Interestingly, Letters and Sounds (2007) was quite deliberately never intended to provide all these things. Instead, it offered schools the flexibility (and crucially, affordability) of choosing the support, resources, training and decodable books that worked best for them to deliver the Letters and Sounds (2007) programme. The DfE have been clear that this has been done very successfully by some schools.
You do not have to stop using Letters and Sounds 2007 unless you want to
The DfE have been very clear that, “You don’t have to stop using Letters and Sounds 2007 now, or at all.” They have also stated that Ofsted do not have preferences for particular programmes. If the existing Letters and Sounds (and any resources, training and books that you accompany it with) are working well for your school then you are free to keep doing what you are doing.
The situation is a little different if you receive funding or training support from an English Hub. In this case you can continue to receive support whilst using Letters and Sounds (2007) until Spring 2022. After that time, you will only be supported in the use of a validated programme. No doubt your English Hub will have lots of good advice for you about what your options are going forward.
If you think you want to make a change, you don’t need to rush into any decisions. All the available options won’t be known until Spring 2022
The validation process won’t happen overnight. There are three rounds. The final list of all validated programmes won’t be available until all the rounds have finished in Spring 2022. All existing programmes are having to apply from scratch and it seems likely that a number of new programmes will appear next year.
It is our understanding that at least one revised version of Letters and Sounds is being produced. The DfE initially commissioned some English Hubs to produce a new version. The DfE later pulled out of the project, but the English Hubs who had been commissioned are continuing to produce this new version of Letters and Sounds on a non-commercial (but still paid for) basis and they state on their website that they are confident that it will be validated. Please note, that we have no links with the producers of this new version of Letters and Sounds. We’re not providing this information in the suggestion of any kind of recommendation of endorsement from them to us or vice versa. We just want to raise awareness that there are teachers working hard to ensure that Letters and Sounds doesn’t simply disappear along with the vast amounts of hard work that teachers have put into achieving success with it over the years.
Once the final round of validation is completed next year and the final list of programmes is published, it should be easier for schools to make informed decisions.
When that time comes, remember to really explore both the benefits and full costs (both up front and ongoing) of all the options. Don’t forget to look closely at how sturdy any decodable books are. I was shocked recently, while helping a school audit their books, to find a worrying number of decodable books falling apart after only a couple of years use whilst plenty of other similarly sized books were going strong after 20 years of use in school. Books that need replacing regularly could make a drastic difference to your ongoing costs and once you are invested in a particular programme you are committed to buying those specific books that follow that progression. Also, do the sums carefully to work out whether any funding you may be eligible for will offset your costs – especially the ongoing costs – enough to make the programme good value. How much improvement can you realistically expect from your phonics results? Is it worth it? Are there other ways to improve your phonics teaching?
If, for whatever reason, you do need to buy into a new programme before it has been validated, do enquire what the situation would be if, for some reason, the programme you have chosen doesn’t end up being validated.
What are PhonicsPlay going to do?
In terms of what we are going to do here at PhonicsPlay, it is important to say that we never set out to be a full synthetic phonics programme. PhonicsPlay was designed to be used as a supplementary resource intended to help make the Letters and Sounds programme more manageable and fun to teach. However, from the start, we have also tried to make the site as flexible to use as possible so that teachers can follow different progressions. We know, because you tell us, that schools who use alternative full programmes both in this country and internationally successfully, use PhonicsPlay games and printables as supplementary resources. We believe that continuing to use PhonicsPlay as a resource to support your teaching is in line with the DfE advice and that if you are a school who has successfully built on Letters and Sounds “there is no need to change your approach”.
We are honoured that some of you have asked us to consider expanding what we offer to turn PhonicsPlay into a full programme. Unfortunately, as a small family business, the provision of a full training programme (of the standard and level of hands on support that we think schools deserve) and published books (that are as fabulous and fun as we would love decodable books to be) just isn’t something that we feel we are in a position to deliver at this time. Also, if we are honest, we don’t actually think it is in the best interests of schools for them to be locked into the position of having to get all their resources, training and books from a particular specified supplier.
We would have liked to see the DfE commission teachers and phonics experts (with no commercial interests in phonics provision) to agree on a single (best possible) phonics progression. All resources, books, training and full programmes could then align with this progression (whilst retaining all their other unique features). We think this would make it both simpler and cheaper for schools to ensure that their training, planning, books and resources all align. We are disappointed that the DfE haven’t taken this approach.
For the time being then, we do not intend to become a validated full programme. We will remain a supplementary resource.
We will certainly be watching carefully for further clarification and keeping an eye on which programmes are validated. We will also be taking notice of which choices schools are making once all the options become clear. At the current time, we aren’t intending to make any imminent changes to the site and we will give lots of warning if we do decide to make changes in the future.
For schools continuing to use Letters and Sounds 2007
If your current intention is to continue using Letters and Sounds (2007) then rest assured that for the foreseeable future, we fully intend to make sure that our resources supporting the Letters and Sounds (2007) progression will be here to support you.
For schools who are thinking of switching to a new programme next year
If you are thinking that a change may be on the cards for your school once you know what new options are available next year, then please bear in mind that there are many schools who successfully incorporate the use of PhonicsPlay alongside phonics programmes other than Letters and Sounds. We will certainly be giving lots of thought to how we can make our resources even more flexible and easy to incorporate into different progressions.
Obviously, if at some point you come to the conclusion that it is time for you to move on from PhonicsPlay and embrace a different way of working then we wish you the very best on your new adventures. Obb and Bob will be here to welcome you back, with open arms, if you change your mind at any point.
Please rest assured that urgent action isn’t necessary right now – unless you really want to take it.