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Leading article: How to improve literacy in a time of austerity

Our national problem with reading goes beyond schools and runs deep in our society

The good news is that Ofsted's new chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has turned the spotlight on literacy standards in schools. The bad news is that they have remained stagnant for the past seven years, with one in five children, nearly 100,000, still leaving primary school in England with a reading ability insufficient to access the secondary school curriculum. In Wales, the situation appears to be worse, with Estyn, their national school inspectorate, estimating that 40 per cent of pupils could not read as well as they should when they arrived at secondary school.

This stalling of reading standards since 2005 has been responsible for the UK slipping from 17th to 25th place in the latest international literacy league table published by PISA. That is a record we should be ashamed of, because it is undoubtedly true that if a child is unable to read properly, he or she has little chance of coping with other areas of the National Curriculum.

The question now is how to improve the situation. Sir Michael's suggestion is to raise the reading target for 11-year-olds. At present, the 200 or so schools that have consistently failed to get 60 per cent of their 11-year-olds achieving acceptable literacy and numeracy standards in national curriculum tests are being coerced into becoming academies by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. By itself, though, this is unlikely to have the desired effect, as our reading problems go beyond schools and run deep in our society.

First, recent research has shown that fewer parents are systematically reading to their children in the evening – and thus failing to give them the grounding they need in English before they start school. Second, there is the question of whether the current curriculum is sufficiently inspiring to encourage children to read. The emphasis is very much on testing, and teachers, fearful of a poor showing for their school in the league tables, coach their pupils incessantly in the final year of primary school.

Third, it has to be acknowledged that the Coalition's record in this area – for all its efforts to blame the previous government for the current situation – is not whiter than white. Head teachers' leaders have reported that since ministers scrapped the ring-fenced funding for one-to-one reading projects in schools, a number have had to be axed in an attempt to make ends meet. While the PISA figures do reflect developments under Labour, the same cannot be said for the results of National Curriculum tests over the past two years.

There could be the bones of a rescue plan in all this, though. What is obvious is that volunteer reading schemes in primary schools throughout the UK need to be encouraged – along the lines of the campaign our sister paper, the Evening Standard, has been conducting in London. These get around the issue of public-spending cuts, and many firms in the capital have encouraged their employees to become readers in nearby schools. There is no reason to believe the number of volunteers across the country could not be increased.

Then it is back to Sir Michael. He has already done the easy part in drawing attention to the problem, but there is no reason to suspect he will not do the hard graft, too. After all, his record in raising standards while headmaster of Mossbourne Academy in Hackney was impressive. He is like a dog with a bone when it comes to improving standards among disadvantaged pupils. We shall be closely monitoring and supporting his efforts. The outlook for the nation and its economy would be bleak indeed if, 10 years from now, one in five children is still leaving primary school unable to read to an acceptable standard.