Critics of primary education who claim that a growing proportion of 11-year-olds are poor readers have been offered some damning statistical ammunition by researchers at Manchester University.
Several studies of pupils in the final year of primary school have suggested that there has been little change in children's reading ability since the Second World War. However, the Secondary Heads Association is one of the bodies that has challenged this conclusion, arguing that there has been a noticeable deterioration since 1992.
SHA's view has now been supported by Julie Davies and Ivy Brember, two Manchester researchers who tested more than 1,300 Year 2 pupils and nearly 1,300 Year 6 children in five primary schools between 1989 and l995. They found that although the reading scores of the younger children remained fairly static over the six years there was a marked deterioration at 11.
The number of poor readers increased substantially while the proportion of very good readers dropped. The percentage of 11-year-olds who scored less than 85 in the Primary Reading Test rose from l0 per cent in 1989 to a high of 18 per cent in 1994. At the other end of the ability spectrum, the percentage of children scoring more than 115 fell from 22 per cent in 1989 to only 7 per cent in 1994.
"There was a slight upturn in cohort 7 (1995)," Davies and Brember will tell the British Educational Research Association Conference in York tomorrow. "But the scores were still significantly below those of 1989."
Davies and Brember say that the five schools' catchment areas ranged from suburban to poor urban and each had very few British Asian or British Afro-Caribbean pupils. But they anticipate that their findings will be criticised because they are based on the Primary Reading Test.
"The test, which was standardised in 1981, might be accused of becoming outdated with the language becoming more archaic as time went on," they say.
"However, the small but significant difference between the cohorts' attainment levels is unlikely to be due to the increasing obsolescence of the test, since, if this were a factor, it would surely show its influence equally throughout the whole range of scores."
Their bleak conclusion is that the huge investment in the national curriculum has not raised reading standards. But Davies and Brember suggest that lack of time, rather than inappropriate teaching styles, is at the root of the problem.
"The national curriculum, with its nine subjects plus religious education has made great demands on the time available for the teaching and learning of reading," they say. "In addition, assessment recording and reporting arrangements have been introduced which are onerous on teacher time."
They accept, however, that the link between increasing curriculum pressures and declining reading scores is not clear-cut. "Continuing research is needed to try to unravel the effects of the national curriculum and major policy changes on schools and on children's reading, attainments," they say.
Monitoring Reading Standards in Year 6: a seven-year cross-sectional study, by Julie Davies and Ivy Brember, School of Education, Manchester University.