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 516.

    487.Rebecca Riot Do you really hang about outside schools listening to Welsh children? And I assume your remarks about people who live in the country not only applies to Wales then, but to the whole of the UK? Better read - you could be one......
    Ever heared of a typo FG

  • rate this

    Comment number 515.

    101.Peter Bridgemont

    Make that FEWER school hours, not less!

  • rate this

    Comment number 514.

    2. Sack left wing teachers and those who fail to perform adequately

    I conclude that there would be no requirement to sack right wing teachers if there were any...although I rather suspect that most teachers are too intelligent to fall for the hackneyed guff that emanates from head office in the first place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 513.

    You can thank the Labour Loony Left for this! Any teacher worth his or her salt saw this coming years ago and moved away to more advanced countries like Scotland or Ireland leaving behind the second best educators, A bit like the blind leading the blind...There is no discipline, passion or commitment. I can only see things getting worse after the headless chickens in government get round to debate

  • rate this

    Comment number 512.

    497. Llanemz your comment is spot on. The massive closure of public libraries is also a scandal and all thanks to the unnecessary public sector cuts.

    489. MartinFatGuts - an occasional spelling mistake doesn't indicate stupidity but a lack of thought (as in your case) probably does.

  • rate this

    Comment number 511.

    At Skool I cudnut even spel skool inspektor. Now I are won!

  • rate this

    Comment number 510.

    The four basic explanations are (1) poor discipline and poor attitudes to learning, (2) increased numbers of children who don't speak English as a first language, or at all, (3) too much testing at the expense of teaching, and (4) poor literacy among some teachers. All of these require robust and controversial measures to fix, but governments always shy away from taking them. So the rot continues.

  • rate this

    Comment number 509.

    My three kids are too busy taking tests to learn anything.

    Over tested, under taught.

  • rate this

    Comment number 508.

    Ofsted seem to revel in beating up teachers with these random statistics. Net result seems to be schools pushing to meet Ofsteds latest whim rather that educating. I want Ofsted to start working with schools to help them improve and to spread around good practices. By the way how much does Ofsted cost and is it justified?

  • rate this

    Comment number 507.

    'Literate' should not mean spelling , given the crazy pronunciation of many English words, and the existence of spell checkers. Bad spelling did not stop me being an economist.

    Grammar and word meaning are infinitely more important as is correct diction.

    The impact of estuarine is horrendous. Some foreigners can out compete locals for jobs for which reasonable spoken English is needed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 506.

    Even if parents aren't that interested nowadays most kids have unrestricted access to the most amazing learning tool in human history, the internet
    It's like having the entire British Library at your fingertips, with a search function to give you instant access to any section of that library

    How kids use that incredible resource is up to them

    IT stuff


  • rate this

    Comment number 505.

    @ 501. jillvan

    Please read my comment, number 476.

  • rate this

    Comment number 504.

    "Since then standards have stalled and other nations have been doing better than us."

    So our education standards got worse. We gave them huge sums of extra money during this time and they delivered worse results.

    Will Heads roll?

    No. This is a public service, so they will probably get promoted then go on strike against the cuts and the unaccountability of banks.

    What a mess.

  • rate this

    Comment number 503.

    Dolly Parton's Imagination Library is a program that gives children a free book each month from birth up until 5 years old.

    The free books available from Dolly Parton's Imagination Library are a mixture of classic and contemporary fiction and non-fiction for children.

  • rate this

    Comment number 502.

    Seagull mangement in action!
    Come in sqwarking, defacate on everybody from on high and after making much noise but little improvement fly off to do the same thing somewhere else.
    Why doesn't he show us in a classroom how it should be done, because he can't he is just a manager and a bully.

  • 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.

  • rate this

    Comment number 500.

    482. ChorleyLass.
    It's similar with Maths. Before I removed my children from school I asked a teacher why, when a child obviously has not understood maths lesson of that day, the lesson wasn't repeated until they did understand. Her reaction was 'I don't have time. We have to get through a certain amount of syllabus a year." So straight on to the next page then!

  • rate this

    Comment number 499.

    arrrite...innit. you is sayin i's ilitrit jus cos i carnt spel right? I's commooonicatin da messige to ya aint i? You's unnerstanding me cos you's down wiv the street. we dont need no littrit. back off!

  • rate this

    Comment number 498.

    @482.ChorleyLass, I remember when we got spellings wong we would have to write out each word that we got wrong 10 times, and if you got less than 60% you had to retake the test again, while the other kids were able to read or do something else. It didnt help that I am mildly dyslexic but I over came.

  • rate this

    Comment number 497.

    Literacy is a massive problem!! But how many school has a prober library full of up do date material????? When schools have to cut back whose budget they reduce first its the library budget, IF YOU WANT TO IMPROVE LITERCY GET A PROPER LIBRARY FULL OF UP TO DATE BOOKS AND A PROPER LIBRARIAN!!!!


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