Are reading standards falling in primary schools?

Published: 23rd Sep 2013

Last week the Labour Party alerted its Twitter followers to the fall in reading standards in English primary schools.

The official Labour Education Twitter account linked to a Daily Mirror article on Sats results, which were annouced last week when the Department for Education released data on reading, writing and maths assessments taken by over half a million 11-year-olds. A close reading of the data shows that the overall pass rate for reading has fallen by 1% since 2012.

Reading has however also improved by 1% according to teachers' assessments, meaning the teachers' judgement of each pupil's performance in the whole subject over the whole academic year.

So are reading standards improving or falling? Neither, it seems.

If we take a longer term view of reading proficiency we'll see that those attaining level 4 or above have been hovering between 83 and 87% for seven years. In this light, a 1% change isn't necessarily significant.

*Note: From 2012, writing teacher assessment replaced writing tests; Reading, writing and mathematics include both test results and teacher assessments.

In fact as the DfE points out in its release, the figures are provisional and due to be revised later in the year:

"The differences between these figures and the revised figures released alongside the performance tables later in the year are historically between ±1 percentage points."

It follows, as the department flags, that changes of ±1 percentage point are "not necessarily indicative of a change in attainment."

What is true is that the other subjects assessed through Sats have improved. The overall pass rate is up by 1% in maths and by 2% in writing, while 1% more pupils are reaching the expected level in reading, writing and maths combined. Results in the latter assessment have been steadily improving since 2007.

Is the 1% drop down to Cameron "cutting support for literacy tuition"?

In their tweet, @LabourEducation suggest that government cuts to literacy tuition may be behind the fall.

In the Mirror, Stephen Twigg comments on the results saying:

"David Cameron is so out of touch he slashed support for Labour's 'Every Child a Reader' programme in 2010 which was providing one-to-one catch-up tuition."

'Every Child a Reader' (ECaR) was launched in 2008 by the KPMG Trust, the Institute of Education and the government. It offered extra support for children in Key Stage 1 who were behind with their literacy. Under the scheme, the government funded individual schools with children in need of extra support. Local authorities employed specialist teachers to oversee the project across schools in their area.

While Stephen Twigg suggests that funding for the programme has been "slashed", Michael Gove has said that "the ringfences were being removed" and headteachers who want to prioritise literacy would still have the chance to access funding for tuition.

In the seven years before the scheme was introduced in 2008, the proportion of pupils achieveing level 4 or above ranged between 80 and 84%. On a nationwide level, it's difficult to trace from these figures alone what impact the scheme had, if any. However on an individual pupil-by-pupil level, the evidence has been mixed.

A 2009 Policy Exchange report questioned whether it was worth the money. ECaR is "an expensive programme", the report argued, which the government funded "to the exclusion of all other available interventions." The think-tank also expressed concern at the fact that "there have been no independent evaluations of ECAR in the UK and the international evidence is mixed."

Other evaluations have suggested that the results can be impressive. This year the Institute of Education wrote that in one school, pupils' success at reading had "more than trebled" thanks to ECaR.

A 2011 government-commissioned review authored by NatCen and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, among others, found that Reading Recovery - "the most intensive element of ECaR" - was having a positive impact on reading and on pupils' ability to 'decode' text. But is also points out that the programme had smaller positive impacts "on reading related attitudes and behaviours."

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Flickr image courtesy of betsystreeter

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