June 2, 2011 • 11:30 am

Monday’s Evening Standard contained an in depth report, sensationally spelling out the extent of the problem of illiteracy in the capital.

The report contains a number of shocking statistics including the finding that an estimated one million adults in London have problems reading.

Some of the statistics were also used in an (unfootnoted) report by the Centre for Policy Studies report last year. When we looked these figures at the time we raised concerns about the lack of transparency over the sources.

With the figures given a fresh airing, we decided to take a second look.

“One million (or one in six) working adults in the capital cannot read with confidence “

So far as we are able to tell this figure is sound, albeit based on a national rate and rounded up slightly. The one in six ratio is highlighted in a statistical briefing from the National Literary Trust which stated: “One in six people in the UK struggle with literacy.”

Fortunately since this is footnoted we can trace the figure back to a 2003 study for the Government which estimated that in England: “5.2 million adults (16% of the population) at Entry level 3 or below”

So, taking this admittedly slightly dated figure, and applying it to the 5,2 million working age adults (based on 2009 estimates for London) we get a figure of a little over 830,000. Not quite a million but not drastically far off.

“One in four children leaves the capital’s state primaries unable to read properly. Five per cent can hardly read at all.”

Taking the number of children who do not achieve Level 4 at Key Stage 2 or above, we start to see where this figure comes from.

The revised data for 2009-10 shows that in London 82 per cent of pupils at maintained schools achieved Level Four the level expected expected of 11 year olds) or higher in in Key Stage 2 tests for English. This breaks down into 74 per cent reaching the standard in writing and 85 per cent for reading.

If 85 per cent are achieving the expected level in written tests, this suggets 15 per cent were not, a smaller proportion of the one in four claimed by the Standard.

However the 25 per cent figure was also used last year as the proportion unable to read or write. The foreword to the Centre for Policy Studies report talks of “the 25 per cent who are leaving [school], at the age of 11, unable to properly read or write.”

We contacted the Evening Standard, who confirmed this was the source for their report. When we tried to find out where this figure came from last year, the Centre for Policy Studies were unable to tell us.

Perhaps the figure comes from previous years. However, it seems the Financial Times’ Christopher Cook has already crunched the numbers on this. Based on the National Pupil Database (NPD), he cited a figure of 80.1 per cent – still some way higher than the figure emblazoned across the Standard’s.

At Full Fact we don’t have access to the NPD to see it for ourselves, but combined with the figures we have looked at, it suggests that the number of primary school children in London failing to reach Level 4 for reading and writing is closer to one in five, rather than one in four.

Just to be extra sure we ran our figures by the Department for Education, who confirmed that the figures we were using were the most recent and the most relevant.

The five per cent who struggle to read at all seems much clearer. Taking the figure for the percentage of kids achieving below Level 3 at Key Stage 2 English tests, listed in a separate table, the figure for London as a whole is given as 5 per cent.

“1 in 3 children says he or she does not own a book”

This is based on surveys conducted by the National Literacy Trust. The results of the survey showed that 66.8 per cent of children said they had their own books.

However it should be stressed that this is a national figure, not a figure for London as suggested by the front page of the Evening Standard.

“40 per cent of 11 year olds from inner-city schools have a reading age of between six and nine when they start secondary school.”

This was a claim made by the Centre for Policy Studies, in their report last year. Given the lack of footnotes we were left scratching our heads.

It was left to the author of the report to explain that the figure was based on her studies of the intake of two academies which test the literacy of their new students.

Although we were told at the time that this was a figure referenced in other secondary sources and by various education professionals, we decided that we would have needed to see a bit more evidence before this passed the Full Fact test.


So far it is a bit of a mixed bag so far as the statistics used by the Evening Standard are concerned.

Those about book ownership and the number of adults with reading difficulties seem sound, albeit by assuming national percentages will be replicated for the capital.

However questions will continue about the proportion of 11 year olds from inner city schools with reading ages of between six and nine.

Confusion also remains about the claim that 1 in 4 pupils leave the capital unable to read or write, as the figures we looked at suggested it is slightly less than 1 in 5.

Without knowing where the Centre for Policy Studies figures comes from, we cannot rule out that it is backed by an alternative, or out-of-date approach to the figures. But the 1 in 4 figure is not backed up by the most recent data for Key Stage Two assessments.

It is frustrating to see an unreferenced figure repeated several times in an eye-catching fashion by a newspaper, when it does not chime with what the official statistics show.

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