Nick Gibb on reading: greater expectations

Nick Gibb at Stockwell Park High School speaking about reading on the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP

Thank you for that kind introduction. And let me thank staff and pupils at Stockwell Park High School for the invitation to come here and talk about reading. It is a pleasure to be here.

As many will know, today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of the great modern novelists, Charles Dickens.

Dickens was an author who read voraciously and he would be delighted to know his books are being read, re-read, shared, enjoyed and annotated until their pages yellow.

The great irony of course, is that when Dickens was writing, few were reading. Fewer than half of children attended early Victorian schools, industrial revolution brought terrible poverty and hardship. Literacy was a gift for the few.

Today, almost everyone reads and writes. We blog, we tweet, report, comment, email and update to an astonishing extent. The chief executive of Google, Eric Schmidt, estimated we create as much information every two days on the internet as was produced in the entire history of mankind up until 2003.

But even after two centuries of technological and social revolution, there are still shadows of Dickens’s world in our own - with literacy problems remaining asymmetric and heavily orientated towards the poorest in our communities.

Sixty per cent of white boys eligible for free school meals are not reading properly at age 14. Only 73 per cent of pupils on free school meals, and only two-thirds of boys eligible for free school meals, achieve the expected standard at Key Stage 1.

We need - if you’ll forgive the Dickens pun - much greater expectations of children in reading. And this is why the Government is absolutely determined to help all children, from all backgrounds, to become fluent and enthusiastic readers.

We already know how to tackle reading failure from the youngest ages. High quality international evidence has demonstrated that the systematic teaching of synthetic phonics is the best way of making sure young children acquire the crucial skills they need to read new text, so driving up standards in reading. Children are taught the sounds of the alphabet and how to blend those sounds into words.

Taught as part of a language rich curriculum, systematic synthetic phonics allows problems to be identified early and rectified before it is too late.

We have already introduced a number of measures to ensure that more young children learn the essential skill of decoding, and to equip schools with the necessary skills, resources and training.

We’ve reviewed the Qualified Teacher Status standards so it is now a requirement that teachers of early reading should demonstrate a clear understanding of the theory and teaching of systematic synthetic phonics.

From this summer, the new Year 1 phonics screening check will support teachers to confirm whether individual pupils have grasped fundamental phonics decoding skills, and identify which children may need extra help.

And I am delighted to see 4,142 primary schools already signed up to spend more than £10 million on new phonics products and training. Taking advantage of the Government’s match funding scheme to buy a range of teaching resources, training, books, software and games.

Nevertheless, there are still too many areas, including (perversely) those with some of the most pressing literacy problems, who are not taking advantage of this open invitation despite all the national, and international evidence in support of urgent action.

The Centre for Social Justice has identified literacy and numeracy problems in 60 per cent of children in schools that specialise in helping those with behavioural problems, and in 50 to 60 per cent of the prison population.

The CBI surveyed 500 employers and found that 42 per cent were dissatisfied with school leavers’ use of English. While at the end of last year, army recruiting officers revealed that hundreds of would-be soldiers are being turned away because they cannot pass the most basic literacy and numeracy tests - that is, because they have a reading age of less than an 11-year-old.

The net result? We have tumbled down the world rankings for literacy from 7th to 25th and the reading ability of GCSE pupils in England is now more than a year behind the standard of their peers in Shanghai, Korea and Finland. And at least six months behind those in Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia.

In the words of US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, we are being ‘out educated’. And it’s become abundantly clear that we need to think long, and hard, about whether the expected levels of reading we demanded in the past are still good enough.

An 11-year-old reading at the expected level will be able to read fluently and understand the story well. But so many children can exceed these modest expectations if supported properly.

Last week I visited Thomas Jones Primary School in Ladbroke Grove. Where, despite the fact almost two-thirds of the pupils do not have English as a first language, and more than half are on free school meals, the children are reading and enjoying Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Quite remarkably, all of its 11-year-olds read to the expected level and 60 per cent surpass it - well above the London average of 43 per cent.

The national picture on literacy is more mixed. In 2011, four out of five 11-year-olds achieved what we expect in reading. A marginal improvement on where we were 10 years ago.

But the number of pupils attaining the highest standards in reading and writing has stalled dramatically. Ten years ago the percentage of pupils achieving the highest levels (level 5 or over) was 29 per cent. In 2011 it was still 29 per cent.

On the key stage 2 reading test, 41,000 pupils achieved only a level 2 or below: that’s four years behind the expected standard. And the problem is even more marked for boys, with almost twice as many boys than girls getting a level 2 at best.

The challenge for schools today is to be more ambitious. Ask whether the ‘expected level’ is actually good enough.

Surely we have to look at this as the minimum expected? Because when business leaders like John Cridland say 42 per cent of school leavers have poor literacy, we can’t pretend we don’t have a problem - or pretend that the “expected” level is good enough.

We need to raise our sights beyond ‘ok’. By the end of primary school, we want children to be able to read fluently, to interpret a book’s meaning, and be able to enjoy more complex books by the likes of Morpurgo, Wilson and Dahl. Every young person should have read at least one Dickens novel by the end of their teenage years.

I most emphatically do not, however, want to give the impression reading is valuable only in the utilitarian sense of getting a job or passing a test. Quite the opposite.

Once young people learn to read, they should read because it is enjoyable and a good thing in its own right.

As a boy, I took to books because I was inspired to do so by the imagination of authors like CS Lewis, Arthur Conan-Doyle and C.S Forester, as well as Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie.

As an adult, nothing gives me greater pleasure than visiting a school like Stockwell Park High School and listening to students talking with real passion about their own favourite books.

But according to the OECD, the UK is ranked a lowly 47th out of 65 nations on the number of young people who read for enjoyment. Only 60% of teenagers regularly read for pleasure in this country, compared to 90 per cent in countries like Kazakhstan, Albania, China and Thailand.

One could argue that young people have many competing (and important) demands on their time with the attractions of social media, TV, games consoles and smart phones. But it is gravely concerning to see this country’s young people falling out of love with reading, especially when literature still has such a unique and irreplaceable part to play in our lives.

As Mark Haddon, said: ‘Lay the novel alongside film and its specialness becomes obvious…. Film promises everything [but] it can’t do smell or taste or texture. It can’t tell us what it is like to inhabit a human body. It can’t show how you and I can look at the same face and see two different people.’

Jeanette Winterson, makes a similar point, saying: ‘We need a language capable of simple, beautiful expression yet containing complex thought that yields up our feelings instead of depriving us of them. You only get that kind of possibility through reading at a high level.’

This is why young people should - sometimes - actively choose a book over the TV or games console. Literature reveals something to us all about ourselves. It teaches us about the world we inhabit. About relationships, danger and loss. Uniquely, it also allows us to experience what it is like to be someone else, to share their concerns, foibles and difference.

Ever since man developed the capacity to speak, the ability to create fictions and enjoy them, as J.P Davidson writes, has created an ‘otherness from our consciousness that binds us together as social animals’. Literature and language is - quite simply - profoundly important in understanding our world as a shared experience.

The big worry, however, is that more and more young people are missing out on this experience. The National Literacy Trust released research recently that suggests only one in three children owns a book. Yet we know that the difference in reading ability between pupils who never read for enjoyment, and those who read for just half an hour a day, is equivalent to a year’s schooling by the age of 15.

Unfortunately, even when young people do wish to read, the exam system does not encourage them. The curriculum suggests authors from Pope to Trollope and Tennyson, but the English Literature GCSE only actually requires students to study four or five texts, including one novel.

In exams, more than 90 per cent of the answers on novels are on the same three works: Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies and to Kill a Mockingbird. In fact out of more than 300,000 students who took one exam board’s paper last year, just 1,700 studied a novel from before the 20th century. 1,236 read Pride and Prejudice, 285 Far from the Madding Crowd and only 187 read Wuthering Heights.

This is why the government is taking action to encourage wider reading through the national reading competition we launched today.

The competition starts in September and is aimed at seven- to 12-year-old pupils right across the country. With the ultimate goal to support thousands more children and young people to read for pleasure.

It’s also why we are keen to champion and support the tremendous work already happening on the ground through programmes like National Reading Week and the Fifty Book Challenge.

Government can only do so much to encourage a love of reading. Nothing kills passion like bureaucracy.

But it is important for us to mix practical support with recognition of the tremendous efforts of others, including the work Viv Bird and her team are doing at Booktrust (with the backing of generous publishers) through programmes such as the Letterbox Club.

Likewise, I am a huge admirer of the Reading Agency’s Summer Reading Challenge, which persuaded 760,000 children to pick up books over the summer. And the National Literacy Trust’s Premier League Reading Stars campaign for encouraging so many younger children to read.

And I would encourage everyone to support both World Book Day (which celebrates its 15th year in 2012) and the inspirational World Book Night with its thousands of volunteer book givers.

Finally, we must pay thanks to the authors themselves whose creativity and talent propels children and young people into reading. This country has some of the best authors of child, teen and adult fiction in the world. But while names like Blackman and Haddon are rightly celebrated, too many pupils are growing up unable to enjoy them.

Just as the wonderful characters of Dickens like Mr Pickwick, Sam Weller, Micawber, Uriah Heep, Oliver Twist and Scrooge were lost on his own generation of young people, so characters like Callum and Sephy, Chris and Nobody Owens will be lost on ours unless we take action.

The government is determined to change what we expect of young people and schools that teach them. Great Expectations may have come to Philip Pirrip - but it’s high expectations that we need for every child in the country regardless of background or ability.

Thank you.

Published 7 February 2012