Literacy progress has stalled, Ofsted's chief inspector says

boy reading Ofsted says England's pupils are falling behind other countries

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England is being overtaken by other leading nations because progress on literacy has stalled, according to chief schools inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw.

Reading standards had not improved since 2005, he said, and one in five 11-year-olds did not make the grade.

In a speech, he called for primary school targets to be raised, saying: "Our standards should be higher."

Teaching unions say big improvements have been made in the past two decades.

They have accused Ofsted and the government of "playing fast and loose with international data".

Employment prospects

Sir Michael, who took over the chief inspector's role in January, told BBC Newsnight that standards in literacy and reading went up between 1995 and 2005.

But he added: "Since then, standards have stalled and other nations have been doing better than us."

Sir Michael said one in five children - about 100,000 - were not reaching the standard expected (level 4) at the end of primary school every year.

Sir Michael Wilshaw: "Literacy standards have stalled"

And even those who did make that grade had no guarantee of going on to get a good GCSE pass in English, he said.

In a speech in London, he said international comparisons of literacy showed "a worrying picture", and that some countries had improved faster than England - namely Japan, the Netherlands, Belgium and Norway.

The latest Programme for International Student Assessment survey, in 2009, showed the UK had slipped to joint 23rd place in a global assessment of literacy, he said.

Sir Michael said the secret to boosting children's reading and writing abilities - and their overall academic performance - lay in getting things right when they were young.

"Our main concern is that too many pupils fall behind in their literacy early on. In most cases, if they can't read securely at seven they struggle to catch up as they progress through their school career," he said.

"Without reading and writing skills they find it difficult to access the curriculum and achieve well in their examinations.

"As a result, too many young adults lack the functional skills to make their way in the modern world. They are more likely to be unemployed, unwell, in prison, or supported by the state."

Reading age

Sir Michael has set out a plan to raise national standards in literacy in England.

Addressing leading head teachers and literacy experts, he questioned whether the present target for 11-year-olds was challenging enough to help prepare them for secondary school.

He also said parents should be told their child's reading age as well as how they were doing against national targets.

Sir Michael took up the role of chief inspector in January and changes have been coming thick and fast, including "no notice inspections" and schools being told they won't be judged outstanding unless teaching is top class.

The former academy head says he wants a "no excuses" culture; that although improvements have been made, England has "tolerated mediocrity" for too long and radical changes are needed. It's a view he shares with Education Secretary Michael Gove, who appointed him.

Literacy is seen as the cornerstone of a good education and the one in five who do not make the grade at 11 do not normally do well academically at 16, so few would argue with the need to help them do better. Raising the bar for all children at that age - which Sir Michael is now suggesting - will be more hotly debated.

With more schools becoming academies with greater freedoms, the government sees a stronger Ofsted as a way of making sure schools stay on track, but some say too much prescription will hold back improvements.

Ofsted, he said, would focus "more sharply" on literacy in its inspections, and on phonics training for new teachers.

The government believes a stronger emphasis on phonics will improve literacy levels.

This is a method of teaching children to read by teaching them the sounds of letters and groups of letters.

Chris Keates, the general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said "the critical importance of pupils' educational achievement" was "beyond dispute".

But she said the proportion of children achieving the expected level at age 11 and at GCSE level had risen since the mid-1990s.

"Ofsted is right to monitor provision in this vital subject," she said.

"However, it is essential that it does so on an evidence basis, rather than picking and choosing information that seems to support a predetermined view."

Mary Bousted, from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said national tests were narrowing the curriculum.

"It may well be one of the major causes why children at primary school who've had an overemphasis on test items can't access the secondary curriculum."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 774.

    As a Teacher of English at a secondary school, I can honestly say that literacy standards vary yearly with any cohort of pupils - trying to average out years' of results into a comparable trend seems redundant. This comment by Ofsted is a statistical 'surface' response to a growing cultural problem in the UK of a lack of value in literacy. This is everyone's responsibiity; no 'one' is to blame.

  • rate this

    Comment number 596.

    why do people think its just up to schools to teach, its up to parents to do it as well!!! my mum used to read to me and i read to her all the time when i was young this doesnt happen as much anymore and then the parents blame the school! take some responsability for your own child!

  • rate this

    Comment number 591.

    My wife volunteers at a very good junior school. She reads with children and has found that even those who are classed as good readers do not have the confidence to read out loud. By reading to an audience they not only improve their confidence levels they also improve their pronunciation and comprehension.

  • rate this

    Comment number 589.

    The simplest and cheapest way to improve the nations literacy is to provide very cheap bed time books for small children. Once formed, the habit should be as much a part of life as bathing! Forget the focus on phonics, focus on following with fingers and with the unquestioned belief that books are good.

  • rate this

    Comment number 501.

    Children in the past used to read at home for pleasure, talk to their parents, play games that involved interaction with others. These activities are all needed to help children achieve their full potential in literacy. Today sitting watching T.V. and D.V.D.s, playing video and computer games, often without any interaction with others seems to be the norm.


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