Reading standards among children leaving primary and secondary schools have hardly changed since the end of the Second World War, according to the National Commission on Education.
In a briefing published this week, the NCE attacks the "doom-laden pronouncements of inexorable de-cline" in literacy standards, saying the truth is misrepresented by isolated instances of drops in national scores on particular surveys.
The authors, from the National Foundation for Educational Research, conclude that: "We do not have an effective system of monitoring educational standards throughout the UK. Arguments about standards will continue until such a system is in place. National curriculum assessment is not best suited to monitor national performance . . . specially-designed, regular surveys are needed. "
It adds: "At present, effective monitoring of educational standards is occurring in Scotland, but there is none in England or Wales and very little in Northern Ireland. In these circumstances, speculation is liable to run wild . . . Debate about standards must take place, but should do so against a background of assured knowledge."
Examining a broad range of surveys, assessment and standardised tests, the researchers found evidence of a national fall in attainment among 10 to 11 and 15 to 16-year-olds in number skills between 1980 and 1987, but a rise in performance in geometry, statistics and measures. British pupils are above average in geometry and statistics, but below average in number skills.
Under one per cent of school-leavers or adults were actually illiterate, but almost 15 per cent had limited literacy skills, and 20 per cent had limited numeracy skills.
Reading standards among primary and secondary school-leavers rose slightly around 1950 and in the 1980s - but fell slightly among 6 to 8-year-olds in the late 1980s. There was no overall change in writing performance in the 1980s.
The briefing Standards in Literacy and Numeracy: 1948-1994 is available free from the NCE at 344-354 Gray's Inn Road, London WC1X 8BP.