Standards in Literacy and Reading – the Chief Inspector Speaks

You have to hand it to the new head of Ofsted – he’s certainly making plenty of waves. “Playing fast and loose with international data”, according to some.

Ofsted: Literacy progress has stalled, chief inspector says

England is being overtaken by other leading nations because progress on literacy has stalled, says chief schools inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw.

Reading standards have not improved since 2005, he told BBC Two’s Newsnight.

Speaking ahead of a speech on Thursday, in which he will call for targets for 11-year-olds to be raised, he said: “Our standards should be higher.”

Teaching unions say big improvements have been made in the past two decades.

They have accused Ofsted and the government of “playing fast and loose with international data”.

Sir Michael, who took over the chief inspector’s role in January, told Newsnight: “Standards in literacy and reading went up between 1995 and 2005.

“Since then standards have stalled and other nations have been doing better than us.”

The latest Programme for International Student Assessment survey, in 2009, showed the UK had slipped from 17th to 25th place in a global assessment of reading standards measured using a sample of 15-year-olds’ test results.

Sir Michael said one in five children was not reaching the standard expected (level 4) at the end of primary school.


So – to be clear about this – in spite of the imposition of the cure-all National Literacy Strategy and its thousands of training days for thousands of teachers throughout the country, over so many years, we discover that not all children reach an arbitrary level of test performance by a certain age. Hmmmmmm.

What to make of this? How come an ultra high profile strategy and a pedagogy that were guaranteed to ‘raise standards’ somehow haven’t enabled all children to perform at what, after all, is an average adult level (check the Level 4 descriptors!) by the age of 11? Were they ever really likely to? Is any ‘strategy’ likely to?

Could it be that not all children are truly capable of reaching by the age of 11 a level which, at the time of its introduction, was a standard which was thought to be a reasonable expectation for an AVERAGE child of eleven to attain? – i.e. were those first architects of the national curriculum completely wrong to assume that roughly half of eleven year olds wouldn’t get beyond Level 3 by the time they reached Year 6, even with good teaching? [Whilst it now appears that many more than 50% of pupils now reach Level 4 by the age of eleven (thanks to intensive coaching and test preparation) secondary teachers are fully aware that it’s one thing to achieve good marks in a timed test of literacy, but quite another to be able to fully function at that level of literacy in day to day learning situations.]

And is it really seemly for someone who has spent all of his career in the secondary phase to be telling primary teachers, some of whom are young and inexperienced (and also some headteachers who are relatively young and inexperienced), that they are failing when it comes to teaching literacy? What if being ‘inept’ is a result of being programmed with an inept (unsuitable, inappropriate, out of place) literacy strategy? How about inept targets?

I was once in a meeting with a group of the great and the good (bureaucrats) who were pontificating about children who apparently couldn’t read ‘properly’ by the age of 11 because they had failed to reach Level 4 in their SATs test. I resisted the temptation to ask them whether they knew what the assessment criteria for Level 3 actually are (since I knew I wouldn’t have received a straight and honest answer) and I said to them instead, “Do you know what percentage of children in this borough scored between 1 and 5 marks above the cut-off point for Level 4, and what percentage scored between 1 and 5 marks below the cut-off – because apparently one of these groups can read and write fluently, whilst the other group is completely illiterate and can’t ‘access the curriculum’ at all?” (What a hateful phrase that is. Apparently children don’t ‘learn’ any more. They ‘access the curriculum’.)

Of course these people had absolutely no idea how many children were scoring just above Level 4 and how many just below. Let alone how many of those just below Level 4 were summer born and therefore had had several months less time in school than their classmates; or how many were predicted to reach Level 4 within that calendar year. Or how many of the ‘failures’ suffered from poor health, or had missed a lot of school, or had unsupportive home environments, or had special educational needs. Why would they want to consider this amount of fine detail? Their job was simply to condemn the schools that apparently weren’t doing enough by way of narrowing down the curriculum and teaching to the tests through endless booster classes and ever increasing amounts of homework.

Here’s a comment from the Guardian website –

Professor Colin Richards, a former senior HMI, writes in:

The league tables tell us nothing directly about pupils’ “abilities” ie their capacities to learn. They DO tell us about their “attainments” (ie what they can do in a test situation) but only in relation to two subjects (English and mathematics), only about those limited aspects of the two subjects that are actually tested and only about their performance at a particular time. Because of these considerable limitations they have limited predictive value and only a partial correlation with attainment at GCSE – which in itself provides only a partial picture of attainment in maths and English.

And another


One thing to bear in mind is semantics – somewhere along the line, the language has changed from ‘average’ level 4 to ‘expected’ level 4 – this is a small but incredibly significant change from when the tests were first introduced. Anyone with a basic understanding of statistics knows the bell curve – the results are now as skewed as they can be to getting 4+ – statistically speaking, it is to be expected that 25% of children will get less than level 4 – but less than 20% do nationally, through cramming and teaching to the test.

Another thing to note is that children who get a level 3 are NOT unable to read and write, despite what the right wing press say. A child with Level 3 is able to access the Key Stage 3 curriculum and therefore [learn successfully] at high school. A level 3 reader is able to read fluently, decoding and inferring meaning.

Most people would be shocked as to how much cramming of past papers goes on – it has already started in my school and really limits the curriculum the Y6 children get in their last year of school – non-stop English and Maths all year. Then they go to the high school and get put back in mixed ability classes [all] at the same level as the high schools know not to trust all the 4s (4Cs have not really ‘got it’) as they have been boosted for the test.

And another


Something to consider is whether these children who don’t quite make it to level 4 would reach it if they were given, say, one more year?
Why is it so important to consider them in age groups? Would it be a problem to get the same achievement as the bright kids with one more year education? The youngest and oldest child in each year group are already a year apart.

I think education is too obsessed by teaching in year groups.

And another


The obsession with league tables has a very destructive effect on all children whether or not they excel. This kind of labelling of children scars them for life and denies their dignity and sense of identity. Good teaching is about allowing and developing a child’s confidence in their own experience, and sometimes when children come from problematic backgrounds their development may not involve meeting the average league table criteria. This does not invalidate the development they have achieved or the teaching which has helped it. This is where the league tables miss the important questions and thereby impose the mindless conformist propaganda of a sausage machine education.

And another


League tables are simply mechanistic claptrap designed to allow non-educational professionals to interfere, obfuscate and prevaricate in decisions made about education.
Their purpose is not to encourage young children to learn and enjoy their primary school years but to enforce some sterile control over schools so that politicians and educational parasites can claim they can influence learning outcomes.

These tests are temporary snapshots of a child’s ability on the day, propensity to take tests, cultural familiarity with test techniques and a means by which the test providers can make money.

Emotive stuff, we may think, but no more emotive than what comes out of the mouths of professionals who should know better – but who can speak in ways which cloak their lack of logic, their lack of detailed understanding, and their prejudices.

As for the notion that

“Standards in literacy and reading went up between 1995 and 2005 – since then standards have stalled and other nations have been doing better than us”,

I’ll make two observations.

1) Everyone surely knows by now that what actually increased between 1995 and 2005 was the amount of coaching that was done for the tests, and also teachers’ expertise in preparing pupils for tests. The pupils themselves were not necessarily more literate, or capable of being more literate (according to Level 4 criteria).  They didn’t seem any more enthusiastic about using their literacy than pre-1995 cohorts – and were possibly a lot less enthusiastic as a result of the stresses of endless coaching and booster classes instead of being able to enjoy reading and writing as personal and meaningful activities. Since 2005, however, in most schools, endless practice tests and coaching on the marking criteria for English have been the order of the day. There’s only so much of this stuff you can drum into children, so no wonder progress has ‘stalled’.

2) Could it be that children in other parts of the world have achieved higher standards of literacy as a result of being exposed to more enlightened approaches to teaching reading and writing, and to their learning generally? Having not heard anyone in government say what exactly they plan to change in the way of pedagogy (apart from the scrapping of the literacy hour, plus increased amounts of ‘synthetic phonics’ – the ridiculousness of which I won’t go into here, especially as other people have already dealt with the complexities of psycholinguistics perfectly adequately) – what exactly is being proposed? Maybe just doing a lot more of what’s apparently not working?

By all means let’s raise our expectations, but just saying such things isn’t actually going to change anything – even if it does panic teachers into narrowing down the curriculum even more and doing even more teaching to the tests.

Can we now please have a proper, constructive, professional dialogue? And start showing greater respect for those who struggle mightily to make schools as good as they can be, often in spite of inadequate levels of basic training and in-service support for the arduous work they do.

On the other hand, show us the teachers and the schools that have been given all the necessary help and support by people who are skilled and enlightened practitioners, and then show us those who have still been unable or unwilling to make necessary changes to their teaching in order to make becoming literate as meaningful, enjoyable and rewarding as it should be, and we’ll be the first in line to ask whether they are inept, and to suggest the application of capability procedures.

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Please leave a comment - and tell others about 3Di!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s