Reading standards in Britain have been almost static for half a century, despite the rise and fall of radically different teaching methods, new research presented at the annual conference of the UK Reading Association in Manchester has shown. Neither the traditional phonics championed by the education White Paper for England nor the newer techniques promoted during the past 30 years have significantly improved or worsened average levels of ability.
The findings will reinforce the decision of Scottish schools not to embrace too enthusiastically the swings and roundabouts of fashion in reading methods. Greg Brooks, senior officer at the National Foundation for Educational Research in England and Wales, argued that the only way to raise standards is to target six-year-olds who are already falling behind, and use intensive tuition methods.
It is these children who, as adults, form the "trailing edge" of underachievers with low standards of literacy and numeracy. Dr Brooks, vice-president elect of the UKRA and author of a National Commission on Education paper on literacy and numeracy, said: "The implication of this is that it has had nothing to do with changes in methods over the years. If there have supposedly been great swings in methods over the years, they should have had a huge impact on how children perform."
He added: "Our school system seems to be pretty good at getting average-to-good performance out of a broad middle range. But it seems not to do so well as other countries at identifying and improving at least some of those at a barely functioning level in literacy."
Dr Brooks believes that low achievers may be a legacy of the class system. In the past teachers thought many children did not need to be particularly literate to function as adults; now, many excuse underachievement on the grounds of poor home circumstances. International research shows that the trailing edge is an almost uniquely British problem not present in other English-speaking countries. "They don't have a trailing edge," he said. "Why should we?" Dr Brooks backed investment in schemes such as Reading Recovery where intensive remedial work is done with under-sevens. After being briefly in vogue earlier in the decade, Reading Recovery has fallen by the wayside in many areas, often on grounds of cost.
The White Paper for England acknowledged that standards are unchanged since the war. It wants 80 per cent of 11-year-olds to reach the standards expected of their age, and recommends a daily structured literacy hour in all primary schools from September next year. The Scottish Office's standards action group is more likely to couch its requirements in terms of the 5-14 programme's five levels, although it may in future have to define more precisely what is meant by the attainment targets for "most" and "some" pupils.
Dr Brooks's endorsement of targeting six-year-olds is in line with the Scottish Office's Pounds 24 million early intervention programme, which aims to tackle literacy and numeracy problems in primary 1 and primary 2. Help for teachers from nursery nurses and learning support staff is seen as a much more important ingredient than set reading hours. The National Literacy Task Force south of the border, due to report in the summer, is expected to praise target-setting initiatives which are at the heart of the Scottish policy unveiled last week.
Dr Brooks's findings are based on his studies of major national and international surveys, six of them carried out in the past two years. He found just one reliably recorded fall in average performance, among eight-year-olds in the 1980s, but this could be attributed to large numbers of experienced teachers taking early retirement.
Successful teachers of reading, he concludes, tend to be the most experienced, know what works with different children and can adapt their methods. If such flexibility is taken away, poor readers would be the losers.