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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 November 2007, 17:21 GMT
England falls in reading league
boy reading at home
Children in England read for pleasure less than their peers
The reading performance of children in England has fallen from third to 19th in the world in a major assessment.

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), undertaken every five years, involved children aged about 10 in 40 countries.

Scotland also fell, from 14th to 26th. Russia, which matched it last time, was top of the overall achievement table.

Analysis of the England results said children were spending more time on computers and reading less for fun.

Defined as the ability to understand and use those written language forms required by society and/or valued by the individual

Pirls is designed to investigate children's "reading literacy" and associated factors after, in most countries, four years of formal schooling - five in some, including England and Scotland.

First run in 2001, it involves data from a sample of pupils, their parents and their teachers and head teachers.

In England, the Department for Children, Schools and Families commissioned a separate report on the findings, from the independent National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).


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Education ministers have repeatedly held up England's high performance in 2001 as being a credit to the country's education system.

After seeing the 2006 results the Children, Schools and Families Secretary, Ed Balls, said parents must do more.

Key findings:

  • Pupils in England achieved significantly above the international mean in Pirls 2006 but significantly lower than some major European countries, including Italy and Germany.
  • The performance of the three highest attaining countries in 2001 - Sweden, the Netherlands and England - was significantly lower in 2006.
  • The three highest achieving countries in 2006 were the Russian Federation, Hong Kong and Singapore.
  • The score for England in 2006 was 539 and 527 for Scotland, against 565 for the Russian Federation, an average of 500, and 302 for South Africa, the lowest achieving country.
  • In almost all countries, including England, girls achieved significantly higher mean scores than boys.
  • As in 2001, there was a wide spread in the scores of the most able and the weakest readers in England.
  • In England, the performance of girls has fallen slightly more than that of boys, and the performance of both is significantly lower than in 2001.
  • The fall in England's performance in 2006 is evident across the ability range.
  • Attitudes to reading in England are poor compared to those of children in many other countries, and have declined slightly since 2001.
  • Children in England read for pleasure less frequently than their peers in many other countries.
  • More reported having a computer at home (93% in 2006 / 85% in 2001); fewer had a desk or table to work at (75% / 89%), books of their own (92% / 96%) or a daily newspaper (66% / 78%).
The analysts at NFER said it appeared that lower achievement among the better readers had contributed most to England's overall fall, rather than the small increase in the proportion of weaker readers.

There had been significant increases in the proportion of English 10-year-olds with the "least positive" attitudes to reading and who said they very seldom read stories or novels outside school.

As parents we have to get the balance right and as a society we have to send the right messages about the value of reading to our children
Ed Balls
Children, Schools and Families Secretary
Mr Balls said it was the same story as that emerging from the government's consultation on its Children's Plan.

"Parents are worried about striking the right balance between play, reading, TV and computer games at home," he said.

"This study shows that our highest achieving children are reading less with children's busy days leaving less time for books at home.

"As parents we have to get the balance right and as a society we have to send the right messages about the value of reading to our children."

TVs and mobiles

The government had brought in phonics across the primary curriculum and introduced one-to-one tuition and small group schemes for those who needed extra help, Mr Balls said.

Today's 10-year-olds had more choice about how to spend their free time.

"Most of them have their own TVs and mobiles, and 37% of our 10-year-olds are playing computer games for three hours or more a day - more than in most countries in the study.

"That's why I'm calling today for everyone's help to get our children reading more and to kick-start a new national debate about the value of reading."

The general secretary of the NASUWT teachers¿ union, Chris Keates, agreed that reading standards were not the responsibility of schools alone.

"Parents need to recognise the importance of children reading regularly outside school and their responsibility to send them to school ready to learn."


Liberal Democrat schools spokesman David Laws said ministers should be ashamed.

"It suggests that all of its recent strategies to make children read more have been ineffective," he said.

Shadow children¿s secretary Michael Gove said: "It's time the government stopped blaming parents and accepted the case we've been making for a new focus on teaching reading using tried and tested methods, with a test after two years in primary school to ensure our children are being taught properly."

Scotland's Minister for Schools and Skills, Maureen Watt, said she was pleased its most able pupils ranked amongst the highest achievers in the international study.

"However, there is much to do to close the gap between the best and worst performers in Scotland which has remained persistently large," she said.

"The report also shows what this government already knows - that pupils in schools in areas of deprivation don't do as well. We are determined to improve the situation we have inherited."

(* also participated in 2001)
Belgium (Flemish)
Belgium (French)
Chinese Taipei
Hong Kong*
New Zealand*
Russian Federation*
Slovak Republic*
South Africa
Trinidad and Tobago
United States*
+ In 2001 the provinces of Ontario and Quebec participated. These were joined in 2006 by Alberta, British Columbia and Nova Scotia.

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