Reading standards in Britain have remained almost static throughout the past half-century, despite the rise and fall of radically different teaching methods throughout that time.
Neither the traditional phonics championed in this week's Government White Paper, nor the newer techniques promoted during the past 30 years - and subsequently blamed for falling standards - have significantly improved or worsened average levels of reading.
In new research to be presented tomorrow at the annual UK Reading Association conference, researcher Greg Brooks will argue that the only way to raise national standards is to target six-year-olds who are already falling behind, and use intensive tuition methods to bring their reading up to the expected level. It is these children who, as adults, form the "trailing edge" of underachievers with very 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 has supposedly been great swings in methods over the years they should have had a huge impact on how children perform. Why doesn't it show up in the national survey results?"
He added: "We have a remarkable stability in our levels of reading among schoolchildren since 1948. There has been no notable decline, and there has been no notable improvement either. 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 the British problem with low-achievers may be a legacy of the class system. In the past, teachers thought many children at the lower end of the social spectrum did not need to be particularly literate to fulfil their adult role: now, many excuse children's underachievement on the grounds of their poor home circumstances.
International research shows that the "trailing edge" of underachievers is an almost uniquely British problem not present in other English-speaking countries. "They don't have a trailing edge. Why should we?" asked Dr Brooks.
Speaking in Manchester, he argued that what is needed is investment in schemes such as Reading Recovery where intensive remedial work is done with under-sevens to bring them up to the expected standard for their age. After a brief vogue earlier this decade, Reading Recovery has fallen by the wayside in many areas, often on grounds of cost.
This week's Government White Paper on education acknowledges that reading standards have remained unchanged since the war, and outlines a comprehensive programme designed to ensure that 80 per cent of 11-year-olds reach the standards expected of their age. It recommends a structured literacy hour to be taught in all primary schools every day from September 1998, as pioneered by the National Literacy Project.
The National Literacy Task Force is expected to publish its final report during the summer. Its interim report praised the National Literacy Project approach and target-setting initiatives.
Dr Brooks's findings are based on his studies of major national and internationa l surveys of reading skills, including six carried out over the past two years. He found just one reliably recorded fall in average performance, among eight-year-olds in the late 1980s, but said this could be attributed to large numbers of experienced teachers taking early retirement.
Successful teachers of reading, he argues, tend to be the most experienced, who know what works with different children and can adapt their methods. If such flexibility is taken away from teachers, poor readers would be the losers.