Reading levels of primary children worsen

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The Independent Online
Reading standards among 11-year-olds have fallen since 1989, according to a new study which offers fresh ammunition to critics of primary schools.

Recent research has suggested that reading standards have remained much the same since the end of the Second World War. Secondary school heads, however, argue that the reading of children entering their schools has fallen sharply in the past four years.

The study from Manchester University will make depressing reading for the Government, which is committed to bringing 80 per cent of 11-year- olds up to the expected level in English by 2002.

Some experts argue that the introduction of the nine-subject national curriculum into primary schools in 1989 has forced schools to concentrate more on science and technology and less on literacy and numeracy.

The Manchester study which looked at reading scores of children between 1989 and 1995 found that, though the scores of seven-year-olds remained the same, those of 11-year-olds fell.

Julie Davies and Ivy Brember of the University's school of education showed that the number of poor readers went up while the proportion of very good ones fell.

Their research, to be presented at the British Educational Research Association's annual conference in York today, involved 1,300 seven-year-olds and 1,300 11-year-olds.

They were given an untimed multiple choice reading test. The percentage of 11-year-olds who scored less than 85 rose from 10 per cent in 1989 to 18 per cent in 1994. At the other end of the scale, the percentage scoring more than 115 fell from 22 per cent to 7 per cent. There was a slight improvement in 1995 but the scores were still well below those registered six years earlier.

The researchers conclude: "The considerable cost of implementing the national curriculum and assessment arrangements has not appeared to result in raising standards."

They add: "The national curriculum, with its nine subjects plus religious education, has made great demands on the time available for the teaching of reading. In addition, assessment recording and reporting arrangements have been introduced which are onerous on teacher time. It might be that the time traditionally given to the teaching and learning of reading has been eroded over the last seven years."

But they accept the connection between lower reading standards and the national curriculum is not proved.

Controversy over reading standards has raged since the curriculum was introduced. Critics of primary schools have accused local authorities, many of which administer annual reading tests, of covering up a decline in standards.

A study in 1991 from the National Foundation for Education Research into local authority evidence about reading standards among seven and eight- year-olds found there had been a six-month decline in pupils' reading ages but warned that comparisons were difficult because of the different tests used by different authorities.

Another study of 11-year-olds' reading, also from the Foundation, suggested that, apart from slight rises around 1950 and in the Eighties, standards had changed little since 1945.

David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, has already hinted that the national curriculum may be cut back in primary schools to allow more time for literacy and numeracy. All primary schools will have to have a literacy hour every day.