England slumps in literacy rankings

30th November 2007 at 00:00
Russia's 11-year-olds on top of the world for reading as primary pupils here see it as a chore.The question many teachers and academics will be asking this week is: what is so great about pupils in Russia?

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), published this week, shows they are now top of the world's 11-year-olds for reading.

England has dropped down the ranking from 3rd to either 15th or 19th place, depending on whether you think Canada should be able to enter as five provinces (four doing better than England). And Scotland fell from 14th to 26th place.

More pertinent is the drop in England's average score, which has fallen to 539 from 553 in 2001. The international average is 500: 32 countries and provinces were above this, 13 were below.

Critics of England's schools are likely to make teachers the scape-goat. The Conservatives are already using the result as ammunition for their campaign to promote reading tests for 6-year-olds.

But the report's main emphasis is on the significance of parents.

Drs Ina Mullis and Michael "Mick" Martin, of Boston College in Massachusetts, co-ordinated the study, one of the largest international assessments of reading literacy with 215,000 pupils in 40 countries. They concluded: "This report contains a wealth of data countries can use to improve schooling in reading, while confirming the family as children's first, and perhaps most important, reading teacher."

Ed Balls, the Children, Schools and Families Secretary, has seized on the importance of the family. On Wednesday, he announced pound;5 million for libraries to give free books to local nurseries and he called on parents to spend more time reading to their children. With the National Year of Reading starting in January, he pledged more for those 8 per cent of children who have no books at home.

Internationally, the strong message from the survey has been that children are enjoying reading less. The trend is strongest in English-speaking countries.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said: "The stark facts from the study are that standards of reading cannot be the responsibility of schools alone.

"Too many children view reading as a chore rather than a pleasure.

"The measures announced by the Government to stimulate reading are welcome and may help to change this negative perception."

English children were already less happy to read than others in 2001. By 2006 - when the current study of more than 4,000 Year 5 pupils was carried out - 15 per cent of children thought reading was boring and would not be happy to receive a book as a present.

Curiously, there has been little change in the proportion of children reading books outside school. It is low - only one third read for fun every day - but steady.

So what has happened in schools?

In Russia and Slovenia, changes have included introducing an extra year of compulsory schooling. The Russians have also introduced a greater focus on reading in their primary years.

In Singapore, a new national syllabus for English-language development has been implemented, and in Hong Kong schools changed from using prescribed texts to a wider range of reading materials.

The difficulty is that education systems are not necessarily transferable. In Russia it is law that classes have no more than 25 pupils.

But the 103-page Pirls report contains some helpful messages for schools. A table of what effect different factors have on reading scores at 10 shows that the strongest predictor is the child's reading score at 7. It also shows that how frequently pupils read silently in class and had time to read books of their own choosing can have a positive impact. More often was better.

John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, said: "The obsession with targets, tests and tables is sapping space in schools for the enjoyment of books for their own sake.

"If we have a society that doesn't value books and places a priority on individualism, then we will reap the whirlwind. But schools can make a difference in society. They can say to parents 'Let's help you read to your children'."

Leading article, page 27.


1. Russian Federation

2. Hong Kong SAR

3. Canada, Alberta

4. Singapore

=4. Canada, British Columbia

6. Luxembourg

7. Canada, Ontario

8. Italy

=8. Hungary

10. Sweden

11. Germany

12. Netherlands

=12. Belgium (Flemish)

=12. Bulgaria

15. Denmark

16. Canada, Nova Scotia

17. Latvia

18. United States

19. England

20. Austria

21. Lithuania

22. Chinese Taipei

23. Canada, Quebec

24. New Zealand

25. Slovak Republic

26. Scotland

27. France

=27. Slovenia

29. Poland

30. Spain.

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