• Ann Sullivan

The DfE Validation of Phonics Programmes – What does it mean for special schools and provisions?

Updated: Jul 23

I am often asked if my programme is validated and there seems to be some confusion around what phonics programmes specialist schools and provisions should be using.


The validation scheme is squarely aimed at programmes used in mainstream primary schools to deliver initial instruction to their pupils, not pupils with moderate to severe and complex needs in special schools and provisions.

I applied to the DfE for Phonics for SEN to become a validated phonics programme. The reason I did this is that increasingly mainstream schools find that they have pupils with moderate to severe and complex needs who, for a number of reasons, are placed with them in the early years. These pupils may eventually be placed in specialist provision, but that process can take years. Whilst the child is attending the mainstream school it is important that their needs are, as far as possible, met and for them a specialist programme like Phonics for SEN would be a great option for teaching reading and spelling.

In terms of the validation process, any programme aimed at pupils with moderate to severe and complex needs encounters an obvious difficulty in meeting one of the criteria (3): “enable children to start learning phonic knowledge and skills early in Reception and provide a structured route for most children to meet or exceed the expected standard in the Year One (Y1) Phonics Screening Check and all National Curriculum expectations for word reading through decoding by the end of Key Stage 1”.

This criterion clearly relates to mainstream initial instruction from reception onwards and to typically performing pupils / those with mild SEND. Many pupils with moderate to severe and complex needs may not be able to begin instruction in reception and even if they do, they are not likely to make progress at the same rate as peers due to significant barriers and challenges to learning. Some of these pupils will begin instruction at a later point in their school journey and it is not possible to use typical (mainstream) age-related parameters in relation to their progress. In my application I made this point (at the same time stressing the importance Phonics for SEN places on assessment and tracking of pupil progress). The panel (and the policy unit staff who were supporting them) took this point on board but felt they were unable to make an exception for the programme and Phonics for SEN is not on the mainstream programme list. In other areas Phonics for SEN fulfilled the criteria, including those relating to being a complete SSP with appropriate scope and sequence covering all GPCs, the teaching of blending and segmenting, high frequency / common exception words, lesson planning for daily direct teaching sessions, opportunities for pupil practice and application, teaching letter formation, training and, of course, pupil progress and tracking. The panel highlighted the training offer as being a particular strength in their feedback.

When the Reading Framework was published, in July 21, it included pupils with SEND placed in specialist provisions and schools. This is a clear steer for special schools and provisions to use systematic, synthetic phonics as the mechanism by which they teach their pupils to read (and spell) in the context of the wider view of reading (as presented in the Simple View of Reading).


As yet, there is no specific validation scheme for programmes used in specialist schools and provisions, but I believe phonics provision for pupils with moderate to severe and complex needs in both special and mainstream schools is now on the DfE’s radar. This is great news for our pupils who deserve access to high quality, evidence based programmes for teaching reading and spelling.


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