Select Committee on Education and Skills Eighth Report

2 Context

8. Since 1997, the teaching of reading in publicly funded English schools has been guided by the National Literacy Strategy (NLS), now part of the Primary National Strategy. The NLS is non-statutory guidance, a 'Framework for Teaching' which sets out objectives for children from Reception to Year 6, with the aim of enabling pupils to become fully literate. It gives guidance on the ways in which teaching should take place and acts as a day-to-day reference document for classroom teachers.

9. The NLS began in 1997, when concerns about literacy standards in primary schools (expressed, amongst others, by Ofsted in its report The Teaching of Reading in 45 Inner London Primary Schools)[3] led the incoming Labour Government to introduce a strategy specifically aimed at improving the teaching of essential literacy skills, including reading. It was rolled out to all schools in England in 1998, with the aim "to raise standards of literacy throughout the primary age range, to support teachers to deliver the primary programmes of study for reading and writing as set out in the National Curriculum, and to make a significant contribution to the development of speaking and listening".[4] The NLS established a 'Framework for Teaching' including the Literacy Hour, specific training for teachers in the delivery of the programme and associated achievement targets, plus support from LEA literacy consultants Originally, the scope of the NLS extended from the Foundation Stage (age 3-5) to Key Stage 3 (age 11-14), but in 2003 the National Literacy Strategy was combined with the National Numeracy Strategy to become the Primary National Strategy, a change intended "to create a more coherent delivery structure and organisational model, and to interact with schools more effectively on whole-school teaching and learning issues".[5]

10. The NLS has apparently led to a significant rise in reading standards. In 1997, 67% of 11 year olds achieved the expected level for their age in reading, and 63% in English, in National Curriculum Tests. The graph below shows the improvement in reading attainment between 1997 and 2004, as measured by the proportion of children achieving the expected level for their age in Key Stage tests. In 2004, 83% of 11 year olds were reading at the level expected of their age.

11. This picture of general improvement in the reading ability of primary school age children is supported by an independent evaluation of the NLS conducted by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. In 2003, OISE published its final report, Watching and Learning 3, finding that "The National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies are ambitious large-scale reform initiatives that have been generally well implemented and well supported by schools. Although the 2002 targets were not reached, there have been indications of improved teaching practice and pupil learning, as well as a substantial narrowing of the gap between the most and least successful schools and LEAs". It did find some weaknesses: "there is considerable disparity across teachers in subject knowledge, pedagogical skill and the understanding of NLS and NNS […] Although the Strategies have made a good beginning in a relatively short period of time, the intended changes in teaching and learning have not yet been fully realised".[6]

12. The improvement in Key Stage test results has been welcomed by many, but others contest the extent of any advance. For example, Professor Peter Tymms, Director of the Curriculum, Evaluation and Management (CEM) Centre at Durham University, has recently challenged the validity of Key Stage 2 tests as an accurate measure of performance.[7] Professor Tymms, who operates alternative assessments for schools and education authorities, said that Key Stage results were misleading because teachers have learnt to 'teach to the test'. He presented evidence to show that, whilst standards may have risen between 1995 and 2000, the improvements were smaller than the Key Stage 2 scores may imply. His comments were supported by the Statistics Commission, which concluded that the "introduction of a new 'high stakes' test, such as the KS tests, can be expected to lead to an initial rise in test scores, even if it does nothing to raise standards […] The Commission believes that it has been established that (a) the improvement in KS2 test scores between 1995 and 2000 substantially overstates the improvement in standards in English primary schools over that period, but (b) there was nevertheless some rise in standards".[8]

13. Evidence from recent international studies has suggested that English children have a high reading ability on average. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) was a comparative study of the reading achievement of ten year olds undertaken in 2001. Over 140,000 pupils in 35 countries participated in it, including 3,156 English children in Year 5. England ranked third in terms of reading achievement, with only Sweden and the Netherlands higher. However, the study also indicated that, although children in England have greater reading skills, they are less likely to enjoy reading than children from other countries and, importantly, that England has one of the largest variations between its most and least able pupils.

14. It is necessary to treat individual comparative studies with care, as it is difficult to be sure that they are comparing like with like. Nevertheless the PIRLS results do seem to corroborate the results of national tests which suggest that although there has been some improvement, a proportion of children (around 20%) do not achieve the level of reading expected of them at age 11. This situation has been called the 'long tail of under achievement'.[9] It would seem that at present around one fifth of English children have not fully benefited from any general improvement in reading standards.

15. The Government has agreed that more progress needs to be made in raising children's reading ability.[10] The NLS has been altered and adapted over the course of its existence (these changes will be discussed in more detail later in this report) and this looks likely to continue in future. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) has recently announced a review of the English Curriculum, under the banner 'English 21'. It intends to consider the balance of teaching between "the place of creativity and imagination and how to provide an inspiring curriculum and how much emphasis there should be on the 'nuts and bolts' of language".[11] This review will encompass the teaching of English and reading at primary school level. In addition, the Government has recently announced significant changes to the testing regime at Key Stage 1. New assessment arrangements for 7 year olds will combine National Curriculum tests with continuous teacher assessment.[12] Together, these changes constitute an acknowledgement that there is still room for improvement in the teaching of reading at primary school.

3   The Teaching of Reading in 45 Inner London Primary Schools, Ofsted, HMR 27/96/DS, 1 October 1996. Back

4   Ev 33, para 3. Back

5   Ev 34, para 6 Back

6   Watching and Learning 3 : Final Report of the External Evaluation of England's National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies, Lorna Earl, Nancy Watson, Ben Levin, Ken Leithwood, Michael Fullan and Nancy Torrance with Doris Jantzi, Blair Mascall and Louis Volante, OISE/UT, January 2003. Page 8. Back

7   Peter Tymms, 'Are standards rising in English primary schools?', British Educational Research Journal, 30 (4), 2004. Back

8   Measuring Standards in English Primary Schools, Report by the Statistics Commission on an article by Peter Tymms, The Statistics Commission, November 2004. Back

9   See, for example, A Reading Revolution: How we can teach every child to read, Preliminary Report of the Literacy Task Force, chaired by Professor Michael Barber, 27th February 1997. Back

10   Q 181 Back

11 Back

12   DfES Press Notice 2004/0156 Back

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