Reading standards at low point

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The Independent Online
Appallingly low standards of reading in primary schools across Britain are identified in a new report, published as the Cabinet meets today to consider its election manifesto - with education reportedly at the top of the agenda.

The independent survey of National Curriculum test results for 600,000 7-year-olds suggests there is a "major crisis" in the teaching of English and mathematics. The survey, carried out for the right-wing Social Market Foundation, examined unpublished Government data on test results for reading, spelling and mathematics.

It concluded that the findings of failure, between and within local education authorities, amounted to "a major indictment of what has passed for `good primary practice' over the last two decades." And while the Conservatives habitually blame Labour-controlled local education authorities for the education crisis, the survey shows that Conservative-controlled Westminster fell below the national average grade for 7-year-old reading and spelling results.

One proposal up for discussion at Chequers today is the creation of "super- schools"; allowing good schools to expand to meet the demand of parents wanting the best for their children. Margaret Thatcher's 1987 election manifesto said schools should be allowed to expand to their "agreed physical capacity ... Popular schools, which have earned parent support by offering good education, will then be able to expand beyond present pupil numbers."

Under the heading "Opportunity for All" - the present campaign theme - John Major promised in his 1992 manifesto: "Popular schools which are oversubscribed will be given the resources to expand." However, five years later, a decade on from Baroness Thatcher's pledge and after 18 years of Conservative Government, a recent Audit Commission report found that popular schools were still unable to grow to match demand, and parental appeals had risen by 44 per cent over three years.

Today's Social Market Foundation report said that while Ofsted had recently found 79 per cent of pupils in three London local education authorities were below average in reading, that was by no means unusual.

"The results for reading given in this paper for these three LEAs are very low," it said. "But they are very similar to those for about another 20 LEAs ... together with the primary schools in other great conurbations such as Birmingham, Bradford, Manchester and Sheffield.

Even within the best authority, Richmond-upon-Thames, there is a reading age gap of almost two years between the best and worst schools in the borough. A similar "crisis" is identified for mathematics.

Today's Chequers meeting will also be faced with policy proposals on law and order, employment, and health, but there is a strong requirement to meet and match Tony Blair's pledge to step up the political pace on education. One plan is to offer all state schools the same independence at present granted to church schools, giving schools under town hall control the chance of greater freedom to run their own affairs.

The Labour education spokesman, David Blunkett, said yesterday: "It is quite clear that the Conservatives have absolutely no ideas of their own on raising standards in schools, developing new local partnerships, or improving the professionalism of teachers."