The proportion of 11-year-olds reaching the level expected of them in English has fallen for the first time in the history of national curriculum tests, figures showed today.
A fifth of primary school pupils are not reaching Level 4 - the standard required of the age group - in English, according to data published by the Department for Children, Schools and Families.
This is down 1 per cent on last year, from 81 per cent to 80 per cent, and the first time there has been a drop since 1995.
Today's figures also showed that almost two fifths of 11-year-olds are still failing to grasp the finer points of the three Rs.
Just 61 per cent reached Level 4 in reading, writing and maths - down 1 per cent on last year.
Almost three in 10 (28 per cent) failed to reach this standard in English and maths overall. This was also down 1 per cent on last year.
A child's reading and writing scores are combined to give an overall English result.
The Government has a target for 78 per cent of children to reach Level 4 in English and maths by 2011. This year 72 per cent attained that benchmark.
Schools Minister Diana Johnson today admitted that meeting that target would be "challenging" and added she was "disappointed" with the drop in English results.
She said: "Parents are going to be concerned about this blip, as are head teachers and governing bodies. The Government is concerned as well. We have plans to deal with this."
She said the Government was implementing new schemes including one-to-one tuition for children who were falling behind.
She added: "This year's results demonstrate loud and clear that we are going to have to ask some hard questions and redouble our efforts if we are to make further progress in national curriculum tests next year and in future years."
The figures show that boys are still falling behind girls.
Four in 10 boys (40 per cent) failed to reach Level 4 in their writing test this year, compared with a quarter (25 per cent) of girls.
In reading, almost a fifth (18 per cent) of boys did not reach the required standard, against one in 10 (11 per cent) of girls.
In English overall, a quarter of boys (25 per cent) did not attain Level 4, compared with 15 per cent of girls.
Boys did slightly better than girls in maths (79 per cent reached Level 4 compared with 78 per cent of girls), the results show.
Of boys' low writing results, Ms Johnson said: "Boys are not as good at expressing themselves, there has been all sorts of research about that."
She said the Government was trying to implement schemes which would encourage boys to write from an earlier age.
Ms Johnson also said it was not possible for the Government to say that 100 per cent of children should be reaching Level 4.
"Some children have complex disabilities and it wouldn't be appropriate for me to say that," she said.
Children will special educational needs, and those with English as a second language are less likely to reach Level 4.
Pupils who do not reach Level 4 in English by the end of primary school are not able to read between the lines of a story, or understand the moral, or message behind it.
They are also not able to write extended sentences, using punctuation such as commas.
Children who do not reach Level 4 in maths do not know all their times tables, up to 10 x 10, and cannot plot co-ordinates on a graph, or work out area and perimeter.
They are also not easily able to add, subtract, multiply or divide in their head.
Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) which has threatened to boycott next year's national curriculum tests, known as "Sats" if they are not scrapped, said getting a true picture of primary school achievement from today's results was a "very hard job."
She said: "There are fundamental questions about the validity of some of the tests such as writing. The reality is that standards in primary schools are the best they have ever been.
"The marginal shifts in percentages paint a picture of the vagaries of test questions rather than any change in standards. Teachers know from their own assessment that a minority of children need intensive support such as one to one tuition; they don't need irrelevant tests to tell them that."
Ms Blower has said previously that up to a fifth of results are inaccurate.
Martin Johnson, deputy general secretary at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: "These results are further evidence that we have reached a ceiling for primary pupils' performance within the current assessment and curriculum regime."
He added: "We know test-dominated learning leads to children forgetting much of what they have been taught.
"ATL calls on the Government to rethink school accountability, replace Sats, and empower schools to use the freedoms in a new national curriculum to excite children about learning, which is the best way to raise achievement."
Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union said: "In the last decade the Sats results have shown a year-on-year rise in standards. Teachers and pupils have had to work really hard to achieve this and their dedication, hard work and commitment should be recognised and celebrated.
"This year's results indicate that standards have begun to plateau, and show marginal and not particularly significant changes."
The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) congratulated primary school pupils on the results.
In a statement the union said: "We recognise that many children have struggled with learning difficulties, some severe and complex. Their efforts have been just as great as those who have reached expected levels and yet are ignored in the publication of league table results that favour children from more advantaged circumstances.
"We believe that the system is simply being maintained through political obduracy and that there are better ways to gain a broad picture of primary education in England.
"We encourage parents to ignore this meaningless nonsense and to work with their schools to ensure that they are not unfairly judged by some inspectors who treat this information as being accurate and therefore prejudge school performance on the basis of an erroneous and narrow set of indicators."
Liberal Democrat education spokesman David Laws said: "Rather than improving, standards have slipped back for the first time since the Sats began. This is unacceptable and shows that the Government has failed to get a grip on the basics.
"The yawning gap between girls and boys in literacy is very worrying. One in four boys now starts secondary school without being able to read or write at the expected level.
"Ministers need to cut class sizes and ensure schools receive extra cash so that teachers can give struggling children the extra support they desperately need."
Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove said: "This is the final proof that Labour, elected on a platform to raise standards in education, has failed to deliver.
"We have seen a historic drop in English results, the brightest students are not being stretched, and the weakest are being failed the most.
"It is deeply worrying that English results are in decline and reinforces the need for the systematic adoption of the tried and tested teaching methods which we have been advocating.
"It is also concerning that the number of students securing the highest grades is declining, which shows that Labour have failed to stretch the most gifted and talented.
"It is shocking that 50,000 pupils do not have a grade for reading, which demonstrates that the Government are failing the most needy."
NAHT general secretary Mick Brookes said the discrepancy between writing and reading results needs to be addressed.
This year, 86 per cent of pupils reached Level 4 in reading and 67 per cent reached that level in writing.
"Why is there such a huge difference in reading and writing when the same teachers in most cases will be teaching the same children both?" he said.
Mr Brookes suggested that the marking of the writing tests is more severe than that of writing.
"We have evidence that some scripts have been marked extremely harshly," he said.
Instead of examining whether a child can write coherently, the test also asks children to write in the right genre to answer the question, which could be too advanced, Mr Brookes said.
"It asks if children are able to write coherently in sentences. I think we would find more children could do that if there weren't additional things put into the writing test."
The NAHT is to ask new exams regulator Ofqual to investigate the marking, Mr Brookes said.
Today's results also showed a drop in the proportion of pupils reaching Level 5, one level above that expected of the age group.
In total 29 per cent reached Level 5 in English, down from 30 per cent last year, and 43 per cent reached Level 5 in science, down from 44 per cent last year.
But 35% attained Level 5 in maths, up four percentage points on 2008.
Overall a fifth (20%) of pupils reached Level 5 in maths and English together, down from 22% last year.Reuse content