Computers blamed as reading standards slump

British children have plummeted in an international league table of reading skills. Middle-class parents have been blamed for failing to encourage a love of books over computer games.

Primary-school children in England fell from third to 15th in the study of 45 countries, recording the third highest drop behind Romania and Morocco over the past five years. Scotland fell 12 places compared to 2001, slumping to 26th.

Russia topped the league table, followed by Hong Kong and Singapore while South Africa came bottom.

The findings are a severe embarrassment for the Government, which has poured hundreds of millions of pounds into reading and literacy after coming to power 10 years ago under the slogan "education, education, education".

But the Education Secretary, Ed Balls, said the problem lay beyond the classroom and called on parents to tip the balance back in favour of reading at home, blaming the decline on the growth in electronic entertainment. "It's outside school and in children's attitudes where we have seen more changes since 2001. Today's 10-year-olds have more choice than in 2001 about how they spend their free time.

"Most of them have their own TVs and mobiles, and 37 per cent are playing computer games for three hours or more a day more than in most countries in the study," he said.

Mr Balls was immediately criticised by the Tories for seeking to evade responsibility for falling standards. Only 27 per cent of pupils in England surveyed said they were given reading homework at least three times a week compared to the international average of 55 per cent.

His Tory shadow, Michael Gove, said: "It's time the Government stopped blaming parents and accepted the case we've been making for a new focus on teaching reading using tried and tested methods, with a test after two years in primary school to ensure our children are being taught properly."

A review published this month of the effectiveness of the Government's 500m literacy programme found reading skills had barely improved since the 1950s.

The latest results, produced by researchers in the United States for the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), found that while girls' reading abilities continued to outstrip boys across the world, their performance was falling faster than with their male class-mates.

But it was clear that the decline in the score in England was driven by falling attainment among more able readers, typically associated with those living in more affluent homes, although weaker readers were also going backwards.

The study found: "Attitudes to reading of 10-year-old children in England are poor compared to those of children in many other countries, and have declined slightly since 2001. Children in England reported less frequent reading for pleasure outside school than children in many other countries: just a third of children reported reading for fun on a daily basis."

The rise in screen-based entertainment coincided with a decline in the proportion of English children being read novels or books outside school.

England and Scotland, however, were not alone in recording a dramatic slide in fortunes. Sweden and the Netherlands, first and second respectively in the 2001 findings, also fell sharply though not as far as the two home nations surveyed. Wales and Northern Ireland were not covered by the research.

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