Nick Gibb to the Reading Reform Foundation conference

The Schools Minister outlines the government’s initiatives to improve the teaching of reading.

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

I’d like to start by thanking the experts I have worked with over the last five years, people like Ruth Miskin, Jennifer Chew, Sue Lloyd, Debbie Hepplewhite and others.

I am profoundly grateful to them and to all of you for teaching me and the children in your care so much about reading. Thanks to your patience, perseverance and passion at the most vital stage of a child’s education, hundreds of thousands of pupils have taken their first successful step in a lifetime of education.

The Government is determined to improve the teaching of reading in schools, and close the gap in attainment between the wealthiest and poorest pupils. We want to help all children, from all backgrounds, to become fluent and enthusiastic readers. Only once children have learnt to read, can they read to learn.

We already know how to tackle reading failure. High-quality international evidence has proved that systematic teaching of synthetic phonics is the best way to drive up standards in reading. Taught as part of a language rich curriculum, systematic synthetic phonics allows problems to be identified early and rectified before it is too late.

But although this country is one of the world’s highest spenders on education, too many children are failing. When teachers should be helping children to develop a lifetime’s love of reading, poor teaching strategies and practices are condemning too many children to a lifelong struggle.

The figures speak for themselves:

  • Only 73 per cent of all pupils on free school meals, and only two-thirds of boys eligible for free school meals, achieve the expected standard in reading at Key Stage 1;
  • More than 83,000 seven-year-olds achieved below Level 2 at Key Stage 1 this year;
  • One in five 11 year-olds leaves primary school still struggling with reading. Even worse, nine per cent of 11-year-old boys only achieve Level 2 or below at Key Stage 2;
  • Looking just at white boys eligible for free school meals, 60 per cent still aren’t reading properly at the age of 14;
  • And the reading ability of GCSE pupils in England is 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;
  • Overall, in the last nine years, England has fallen in PISA’s international tables from 7th to 25th in reading.

Early reading failure can affect a child’s education and attainment for the rest of their life. A recent report from the Centre for Social Justice pointed out that “significant literacy and numeracy problems are found in between 50 and 76 per cent of children who are permanently excluded from school”.

The report also identified literacy and numeracy problems in 60 per cent of children in special schools for those with behavioural problems, and in 50-60 per cent of the prison population. As the report’s author, Adele Eastman, concluded: “Many display challenging behaviour to hide the fact that they cannot read.”

And too many children grow to adulthood without ever learning this basic skill. Just this week, Army recruiting offices 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 do not have a reading age of more than 11.

As a report by Civitas has stated, “Weak reading lies at the heart of both the educational apartheid between the advantaged and disadvantaged and stalled social mobility. The inability to read properly is the single greatest handicap to progress both in school and adult life”.

So for all these reasons, tackling reading failure is an urgent priority for this Government. We are completely focused on improving the teaching of reading in reception and Year 1 of primary school, with an emphasis on systematic synthetic phonics as the most effective means to achieve it.

And as well as mastering the basic skill of decoding, we want to encourage children to experience the joy of reading and develop a lifelong love of books.

One of my greatest pleasures when visiting a good school is listening to the children talking with real passion about their favourite books - the characters they have grown to love and the stories they have learnt.

But according to the OECD, the UK is ranked 47th out of 65 nations on the number of young people who read for enjoyment. Only six out of 10 teenagers regularly read for pleasure in this country, compared to 90 per cent in countries like Kazakhstan, Albania, China and Thailand. 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 at age 15.

So we’re also working on policies to promote reading for pleasure. We’re currently considering ways to encourage children to read large numbers of books, and I will bring you up to date on our plans in due course.

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

From next summer, our new Year 1 reading check will help teachers confirm whether individual pupils have grasped fundamental phonics decoding skills, and identify which children may need extra help.

The check will provide a national benchmark for phonic decoding, allowing schools to judge their performance on a local and national level, and encouraging them to set high expectations for what their pupils can achieve by the end of Year 1.

It will also help to give parents confidence that their child has learnt this crucial skill, reflecting research that found that 73 per cent of parents thought a year 1 reading check is a good idea.

Our pilot this year took place in around 300 schools across the country. Independent evaluation by a team from Sheffield Hallam University showed that three quarters of the schools felt that the check assessed phonic decoding ability accurately, while the vast majority of schools (over 90 per cent) thought that most aspects of the check’s content were suitable for their pupils.

Most importantly, almost half of the pilot schools (43 per cent) indicated that the check had helped them to identify pupils with phonic decoding issues of which they were not previously aware.

We’re now planning to roll out this short, simple check across the country next summer. The check will consist of a list of 40 words and non-words, 20 of each, which a child will read one-to-one with their own teacher.

The independent evaluation of the pilot showed that most children actively enjoyed the non-words, and thought they were “fun”.

Of course, it is important that children understand the difference between real words and non-words, and we are taking steps to address this issue: helping teachers to introduce non-words clearly, and carefully considering how non-words should be labelled or presented.

But I am very glad to see that our overall plans for the reading check have been welcomed by the Reading Reform Foundation (RRF), and that you believe that it will “ensure that all children have a good phonics foundation, and identify those pupils who need extra help”.

I hope that we can recruit all of the RRF’s members to help us raise awareness about the check among schools, teachers and parents, and highlight the benefits of using systematic synthetic phonics to give children the skills they will need to succeed.

Of course, it goes without saying that ongoing teacher assessment alongside the check will continue to be hugely important in ensuring that pupils are making progress.

To ensure that teachers have the necessary skills and training, we’ve reviewed the qualified teacher status (QTS) standards under Sally Coates. It is now an explicit requirement that teachers of early reading should demonstrate a clear understanding of the theory and teaching of systematic synthetic phonics. You won’t be able to acquire QTS as a primary teacher unless you can demonstrate a skill in teaching phonics.

As a consequence the Training and Development Agency, together with the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers, is working to ensure that all university teacher training faculties are improving the training of teachers in this area.

And so that all schools have access to high-quality phonic resources, we have introduced matched-funding of £3,000 per school. This funding will support schools in choosing and purchasing the appropriate resources for their pupils, together with our recently released catalogue of well-respected phonics products and training, The Importance of Phonics. We are considering running a new procurement process for inclusion in an updated catalogue of resources in Spring 2012, and more information on that will be available in due course.

Finally, Ofsted has published a new inspection framework which draws a closer link between teaching quality and the overall grade schools receive. This new way of inspecting schools will allow Ofsted to spend more time in the classroom and I am very pleased that, for the first time, Ofsted inspectors will listen to pupils reading aloud to check their rate of progress - with a particular focus on weaker readers.

We hope that these measures will help all children to master the essential and life-changing skill of turning words on the page into images, information and ideas in their heads.

In this work I am delighted to have the support of the Reading Reform Foundation, and delighted to be here with you all today. Thank you again for all your hard work and I look forward to working with the RRF over the coming months and years as we take this important task forward.

For children from all backgrounds, being able to read is the vital skill that unlocks all the benefits of education. Together, I hope that we can give more children the key to reading and tackle reading failure.

Published 14 October 2011