Leading article: Competitive reading

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Since his political mis-step over grammar schools, David Cameron, and his shadow schools secretary, Michael Gove, have applied particular care to their pronouncements on education. In homing in on reading, they have struck a popular chord. Even if the response of teachers was less than enthusiastic yesterday, many parents will be responsive.

As well they might be. Not a set of exam results passes without complaints from employers about the inadequacy of school-leavers in reading and writing. A high percentage of prisoners have poor to non-existent literacy. Low reading ability is also concentrated in pupils from lower socio-economic groups. If the reading discrepancy can be cracked, then perhaps we can also crack our stagnating social mobility.

Reading is an absolute basic. It is, as Mr Gove said yesterday, "the key foundation stone on which the rest of learning is built". This is why it matters. If, as Mr Gove says, 20 per cent of children are leaving primary school unable to read, and up to 40 per cent of those from poorer backgrounds, this is a national disgrace. Something, whether it is a return to synthetic phonics or tests of reading alone, has to be done.

It is true that in selecting such an obvious target as reading, the Conservatives are making an easy point. Mastery of basic skills at school has been a dominant theme of Gordon Brown's first months in office. His pronounce-ments suggest that he is, and always has been, every bit as keen on the three Rs as Mr Cameron. We also feel, in the light of international comparisons, that six – the age singled out by the Conservatives – may be a bit early to expect most children to read.

The difficulty for Mr Brown is that Labour has been in power for more than a decade. And the perception is that standards in some areas have slipped, or at least that higher spending has not been matched by equivalent gains in attainment. Voters have also learnt, from bitter experience, to mistrust official figures. So when the schools secretary, Ed Balls, responds that 100,000 more 11-year-olds are reaching the required standard in literacy than 10 years ago, we are inclined to query the precise meaning of "required", "standard", and "literacy" and ask whether this improvement is enough.

Ministers may indeed already be stressing the virtues of phonics and about to "roll out" a new national reading programme. That they are doing so at this stage, however, suggests that they, too, see reading as a major concern. So why did they not address the problem sooner? Improving reading standards might then have become a national educational cause, rather than an opportunity for parties to score political points.