England lags behind Northern Ireland on pupil literacy improvement, study shows

Research claims to be the first comparison of literacy standards in primary and secondary schools across the four UK nations

Adi Bloom

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Northern Irish pupils are the most likely to make improvements in reading, out of students in all the UK nations, a study has found.

The researchers used data from more than 850,000 pupils aged 4 to 18, across 3,243 schools, and said this was the first comparison of literacy standards across the UK nations' primary and secondary schools.

They measured pupils' improvement based on the scoring system used by US school districts.

Pupils took one reading test at the start of the 2015-16 academic year, and another at the end of the year. These tests showed that Northern Irish pupils made the greatest improvements, with an average score of 84.54. They significantly outperformed pupils in England, who scored 76.56.

English pupils, in turn, outperformed their counterparts in Scotland, who scored 68.82. 

The gap in improvement between pupils in Scotland and Wales – where pupils scored an average of 68.56 – was considerably smaller.


The study was conducted by Keith Topping, professor of education at the University of Dundee. Professor Topping suggested that Northern Ireland’s high performance could be explained by schools’ willingness to work together.

"In my experience, Protestant and Catholic schools in Northern Ireland are working together very well, and sharing information very well," he said.

"We were looking at gain, rather than absolute reading standards. So this doesn't mean that Northern Ireland is doing better than England in overall reading standards. But its pupils showed more improvement over the course of a year."

The whole span

Professor Topping's findings contradict those in the latest Progress for International Student Assessment (Pisa) reading tests, in which English pupils came top among UK countries, with a score of 500.

Northern Irish pupils finished a close second, with 497, and Scottish pupils scored 493. Welsh pupils, however, were considerably behind, with 477 points.

"Pisa is only looking at one age range, in secondary school," Professor Topping said. "Whereas our results are looking at the whole span, right through primary and secondary."

The study, which was conducted in association with teaching and learning provider Renaissance, also found that primary pupils read more books than secondary pupils. In addition, primary pupils are more likely to read books that are considered difficult for their age.

The report suggests that this means that secondary pupils are failing to challenge themselves sufficiently with their reading material.

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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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