One in five children leaving primary school cannot read

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The number of children struggling to read when they leave primary school is "unacceptably high", MPs warn today.

The number of children struggling to read when they leave primary school is "unacceptably high", MPs warn today.

The Education Select Committee says academics have claimed the Government has underestimated the number of 11-year-olds failing to reach required standards in reading. It says: "Even if government figures are taken at face value, around 20 per cent of children do not achieve the success in reading (and writing) expected of their age. This figure is unacceptably high." It amounts to about 120,000 pupils a year.

The findings were seized upon by Labour opponents as a blow to its election campaign, which has education at its heart.

Ministers have always cited primary schools as the shining example of their success in improving education standards - as test results for 11-year-olds in maths and English have got better since 1997.

Tim Collins, the shadow Education Secretary, said: "The report is further evidence that Labour's present literacy strategy, despite some limited success, is still letting down an alarming proportion of children."

The report calls for a review of the Government's national literacy strategy, credited for bringing about the success. It comesafter an experiment - the results of which were seen by the committee - showed remarkable improvements in reading standards among children taught to read and write through a crash course in "synthetic phonics", a traditional teaching method used in the Sixties and Seventies. Under it, children learn to read and write using the sounds of letters.

The experiment in 19 primary schools in Clackmannanshire in Scotland, showed that after a year, pupils using this method were seven months ahead of those using other methods. Seven years later they were still significantly ahead of their chronological age for reading and spelling.

The MPs conclude: "We recommend that the Government should undertake an immediate review of the national literacy strategy. This should determine whether the current prescriptions and recommendations are the best available methodology for the teaching of reading in primary schools." Under the strategy, a mixture of techniques for teaching reading is used, including phonics

Kevan Collins, the director of the Government's national primary strategy, said phonics should not be taught alone, and other areas of knowledge, such as context and comprehension, should be developed.

The committee argues: "It may be that some methods of teaching (such as phonics) are more effective for children in danger of being left behind."

Tim Collins said the Conservatives "will put synthetic phonics at the heart of our literacy strategy". He added: "We recognise, as ministers stubbornly refuse to, that synthetic phonics work best only if applied first, fast and exclusively.

"We are determined to make sure that every child capable of learning does so before leaving primary school and we will not allow failed Sixties theories or 21st-century political correctness to stop us."

The select committee acknowledges there has been "a picture of general improvement" in reading in primary schools since 1997 - with 83 per cent of 11-year-olds reaching the required reading standard last year, compared with 67 per cent in 1997.

A Labour Party spokesman said standards had "increased significantly" after the introduction of the national literacy strategy in 1998. "We moved from a third not meeting the expected level at 11 to under a fifth. That's about 96,000 more children meeting the level we want them to achieve."

Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "The report should provide the basis for a reasoned and rational debate involving the teaching profession after the general election."


Support for the "synthetic phonics" method of teaching reading is growing. The Clackmannanshire experiment, in which a group of primary school pupils were "fast-tracked" into reading solely by this method, has put pressure on ministers to introduce a similar scheme south of the border.

Synthetic phonics teaches children to split a word into the smallest unit of sound and blend the sounds to form words."Street" would be broken down into five components, "s-t-r-ee-t". Children taught solely through this method were seven months ahead of fellow pupils after a year.

Supporters say teachers can then build on the blocks created and move on to teaching comprehension. "Within half a term, you can have a whole cohort of children able to do the most fundamental skill - sound out and blend for reading and segment the spoken word for spelling," said Debbie Hepplewhite, of the Reading Reform Foundation.Supporters of the national literacy strategy say that using a mixture of teaching methods develops a more rounded understanding of reading.