'Reading is the cornerstone of a valuable education – but in secondary school it is a mere footnote'

If we are to truly raise overall standards in this country, we need more than just a change in assessment – we need a change in attitude towards reading

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In the wake of GCSE results day this year, there has been a predictable focus on the change of assessment system in the "core subjects". Clearly, this shift in assessment has had an impact on attainment, with a marked decline in children getting the top grades within the new numerically graded system. This is a worrying problem for educationalists to grapple with, and strikes at the heart of the problem we face.

How do we raise standards without jeapordising our children’s futures?

Shrouded within this debate is the issue of literacy rates. Over the past year, literacy challenges have become increasingly apparent. First, there were the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results that laid bare the degree of challenge we face in some parts of the UK. This has been underlined further by recent research we published.

Renaissance conducted research on almost 1 million young people’s reading habits across 3,897 schools, in partnership with the University of Dundee. The study exposed a stagnation in reading ability among school leavers. In detail, it found that 11-16 year olds are not reading challenging enough books at secondary school level.

In the final year of primary school, pupils’ ages typically match up with their "reading age". However, on entry to secondary school, typically children are either stagnating or falling behind on their reading age. This means that many pupils who sat their GCSEs this summer will have had a reading age of 13. The research found that this trend was reflected across the UK – suggesting a nationwide literacy challenge in the education system. Our children are not reading challenging enough books in secondary school.

The contrast between primary and secondary school is telling.

While children in primary school typically challenge themselves with their book choice, their peers in senior school do not. Why should such a decline start in secondary school? The answer lies in our attitude shift to reading in secondary school.

We tend to think of reading in secondary school as the preserve of English lessons. It is only through English that students confront the literary gems that we know and love. In primary school, by contrast, we aren’t so regimented with our approach.

Reading is embedded into the holistic pedagogy that underpins how we perceive primary education. Literacy is seen as the cornerstone of a valuable and positive education – in secondary school, it is a mere footnote.

'Reading becomes an afterthought'

The chasm that opens up for children on entry to senior school is not accidental. In secondary schools, with reading consigned to English lessons and hastily glancing over various textbooks, we are placing insurmountable barriers up for ourselves to overcome and creating an environment in which reading is an afterthought in education.

While the value of Chaucer, Austen and Shakespeare should be embraced, we should also recognise that there is a world of reading beyond the traditional curriculum favourites.

Our narrow focus when it comes to reading after our children turn 11 facilitates a pigeon-holing of literature that endures beyond school. If we are serious about fostering an attitude change in secondary schools, we should make sure literacy is a central tenet of secondary school education.

A national dedicated reading time within schools would help to achieve this, and help to foster a love of reading that seems to be so badly lacking.

Although we wouldn’t want to be draconian in enforcing literature habits, a dedicated reading time in schools, supported by teachers and librarians, would assist in cultivating reading habits that extend beyond the classroom and across subject matter. It would also help to ensure that children are challenging themselves enough, no matter what the content. Teachers and librarians would be on-hand to guide children with their in-depth subject knowledge to steer them towards books that are appropriate for their age.

We need to open the debate on reading beyond its usual parameters to ask ourselves how we can feasibly encourage reading for older years and ensure that the books our children read challenge them.

If we are to truly raise standards in this country, we need more than just a change in assessment, we need a change in attitude towards reading. It is time we went back to basics with our approach to secondary school teaching – after all, it is literacy that is the bedrock of a good education.

Dirk Foch is managing director of Renaissance Learning UK  

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