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Global Literacy Survey: England Scores Well 

levelling up england

Based on a study by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) called the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, the literacy level of nine and ten-year-olds in England has been ranked fourth in the world. This symbolises an improvement from the previous assessment which placed England eighth. 

Teachers in England have been praised for their work and Secretary for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Michael Gove, has celebrated the news on Twitter, along with the Department for Education.

Based on the study, out of 43 countries, Singapore secured the top spot, followed by Hong Kong in second place, and Russia in third. England surpassed high-performing countries like Finland and Poland, which saw declines in their scores. Finland’s score dropped from 566 to 549, while Poland’s decreased from 565 to 549. Nevertheless, both countries still performed well above the international average of 520 and the European average of 524.

However, although England’s ranking improved, its average score remained nearly unchanged at 558, compared to 559 in the previous assessment. Many countries experienced significant score decreases during the period, mainly due to the widespread disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. England was therefore one of the only 11 countries which managed to avoid a substantial decline in literacy rates. 

The results of the study align with findings from the Education Policy Institute, indicating that reading outcomes have recovered to pre-pandemic levels. However, the analysis also suggests that primary school students in England continue to lag behind in mathematics, with a learning deficit of approximately one and a half months.

Levelling up: the Government’s responses

The results were welcomed by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who emphasised the importance of improving literacy rates for economic growth. The Government also highlighted a narrowing of the achievement gap between high- and low-performing pupils, as well as between boys and girls. Yet, this was mainly attributed to a slight decrease in girls’ average scores, with girls achieving an average score of 562 compared to boys’ 553, whereas in 2016, girls scored 566 and boys scored 551.

Schools Minister, Nick Gibb MP, has said that educational reforms made by the Government, including phonics screening which teaches children to read using sounds and the English Hubs Programme designed for developing expertise in teaching reading, are behind England’s successful performance despite disruption from COVID-19.

Gibb also said “The approach that the Government has taken, in the face of quite a lot of opposition from vested interests, has been successful in seeing children’s reading improving in this country” and added that “It’s really important in terms of social mobility that children continue to read regularly and for pleasure and that’s something that we’re still working on as a government.”

When asked by the media whether he was concerned that girls’ reading scores have dropped, Mr Gibb said the decline was “very minimal”.

Other responses

The positive results in reading standards for nine- and 10-year-olds were well-received by the education community. However, rather than praising the government, Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) argued that the achievement was attributed to “the hard work, skill, and dedication of primary school teachers and leaders”.

Barton also stated that “the Government is quick to claim that this is the outcome of its policies, but in truth, these results have been achieved despite the Government’s record of neglect which has led to a critical shortage of funding and teachers. The Prime Minister is right to praise our brilliant teachers, but he now needs to match this rhetoric with a decent, fully funded pay award which improves recruitment and retention and protects education standards.”

Final thought 

Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, England’s teachers are correctly being commended for their ability to maintain students’ learning and achieve favorable outcomes. In the context of the Government’s Levelling up agenda, these results demonstrate an overall achievement of England’s education system.

However, the closing of the gender gap through a decline in the educational performance of girls calls into question England’s achievements. Nick Gibb’s glossing over of the drop in girl’s reading scores is also problematic. Moreover, disparities between schools are also still prevalent depending on various factors such as location.

Curia’s Levelling Up Commission

Curia is holding the Levelling Up Commission this year, seeking to implement the Government’s Levelling Up White Paper and find pragmatic solutions to regional disparities across the UK.

Through roundtable meetings with MPs and senior leaders of local and regional government from across the UK, quantitative data analysis and regional sprints, the Commission intends to set out a series of recommendations to consider how regional inequalities can be reduced from the perspective of public services in four key areas:

  • Health and Social Care
  • Housing and Homelessness
  • Education, Skills and Training
  • Crime, Justice and Rehabilitation

To hear thought leaders discuss levelling up in health and social care, signup to the Commission first inquiry session here.

If you are interested in working with the Levelling Up Commission, please reach out to our policy lead Shivani Sen at shivani.sen@chamberuk.com

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