Education: Literacy depends on how you read the figures: Is it a real decline in standards or just a wobble? Judith Judd discovers differing views on research into reading and writing

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The Independent Online
A Lambeth headmaster said recently that half the 11-year-olds coming into his school in the past two years have needed remedial help with reading. Brian Jones, head of Archbishop Tenison's Boys' School in Kennington, south London, accused primary schools of failing large numbers of pupils. 'It is nothing short of a disgrace that pupils arrive at this school barely able to read and write,' he said.

Complaints about the decline of literacy are in fashion. John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, told fellow Conservatives recently of his crusade to raise standards of reading and writing in schools. The independent National Commission on Education has pointed out that many school leavers lack the basic skills they need for employment. School inspectors have revealed that the Government's reforms have done nothing to improve learning among pupils in inner-city schools.

The debate about whether standards are rising or falling is as old as education itself. Evidence is difficult to find. However, the most recent research suggests that there may have been a dip in reading standards in the past five years. A study by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) last year compared the reading performance of representatative samples of seven- and eight-year-olds in 1987 and 1991 by giving both a standardised reading test. It found that the children's reading age had slipped by about three months.

More dramatically, John Bald, an independent literacy specialist, found a fall nearly four times as great in reading standards among children of the same age in Essex between 1980 and 1990. A report carried out for Suffolk county council also noted a substantial fall.

Mr Bald has no doubt that there has been a deterioration in standards. 'The breadth of reading in schools has increased, and that is good, but it has been done at the expense of ensuring that children can read text independently. There has been this idea that accuracy isn't important.'

He believes the evidence from Essex, one of the country's largest local authorities, which includes both inner- city and rural schools, is typical of England as a whole.

Tom Gorman, one of the authors of the NFER report, disagrees. 'All local authorities use different reading tests and you can't generalise from one.'

Broadly speaking, he says, there is little evidence of a national decline in standards. The only national research so far completed on the subject is in his report and he argues strongly against drawing firm conclusions from it. In his work for the former Assessment of Performance Unit, the government-funded body that monitored standards in the Eighties, he found there were often 'wobbles' in standards, both up and down. The 'decline' which led to the Bullock Report, published in 1975, turned out to be a wobble rather than a trend. 'The three-month decline which we found is no big deal,' he says.

Next year, the foundation will report on a further study of reading standards. Even then, says Mr Gorman, further research will probably be needed before it can be established whether or not reading standards are falling. Although there is some evidence about seven- and eight-year-olds, he says, nobody has yet shown that older pupils' reading is worse than it was.

Indeed, the proportion of school leavers who are illiterate, in the sense that they have real difficulty in reading and writing, has remained constant since the Second World War. About 1 per cent are non-readers and some 3 per cent can barely write. Mr Patten's figure of 5.5 million adults with literacy problems includes those who cannot read or write as well as they would like. 'There is no more reason to be alarmed about the level of illiteracy among adults than there was 10 years ago,' Mr Gorman says. That is not an argument, he adds, for complacency. Between 20 and 25 per cent of pupils are not confident writers when they leave school and this problem must be addressed. In reading, too, we can do better.

David Wray, last year's chairman of the United Kingdom Reading Association, agrees that the jury is still out on the question of reading standards. However, if it delivers a verdict that they are declining, the hunt for a scapegoat will gain fresh momentum.

Mr Bald blames teaching methods encouraged by local authority inspectors who downgraded the teaching of phonics, the system of sounding out words. But Mr Gorman argues there has been no big shift in teaching methods over the period in which the drop has been noticed, and suggests that social and economic causes, such as an increase in poverty and in the number of single-parent families, need examining.

His analysis of teaching methods is supported by the most recent report by school inspectors on the teaching of reading to five- and six-year-olds, which says all teachers are using phonics, and most a mixture of methods; the inspectors pronounce the early teaching of reading good. His views about poverty, however, are more debatable: the Suffolk study suggests standards may be falling among middle-class children.

If researchers decide standards are rising, teachers will still need to ask whether they are doing so quickly enough to meet the demands placed on school leavers. A century ago functional literacy meant, perhaps, the ability to read a shop sign and write your name. Now it means the ability to fill in benefit forms or write a coherent job application.