Reading standards in Scotland falling behind UK, study warns

Nicola Sturgeons reading challenge has been taken up by about 75 per cent of schools in its first year. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Nicola Sturgeons reading challenge has been taken up by about 75 per cent of schools in its first year. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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Scottish pupils rank among the poorest in the UK nations when it comes to improvements in reading, according to new research.

Both Northern Ireland and England fared better than youngsters in Scotland, who are on a par with pupils in Wales, according to the study into pupil achievement in book reading across the UK.

There are now calls for dedicated reading time to be introduced in schools to address the situation, with “more investigation needed” in Scotland to assess why performance is struggling.

The news is a fresh blow after the country fell to its lowest ever standing in global league tables in reading, maths and science. It also comes almost a year after Nicola Sturgeon launched the First Minister’s Reading Challenge as part of a drive to improve literacy standards.

About 10 per cent of UK pupils were analysed as part of the latest study conducted by Keith Topping, professor of education at the University of Dundee, with 117 schools across Scotland involved.

It found that Northern Irish students made the most improvement in the UK, as measured by a reading test. They significantly outperformed students in England who, in turn, outperform students in Scotland and Wales. The gap in improvement between Scotland and Wales is smaller.

Prof Topping said: “It is something that Scotland should be worrying about because Scotland has always prided itself on having an excellent education system, but it’s now becoming that that is a historical claim.

“The current evidence is that Northern Ireland and England are moving significantly ahead of Scotland in terms of literacy performance.”

The study indicates that when it comes to “implementation” and how well Scots youngsters are reading “real books”, the performance is strong – but they don’t seem to be improving.

Prof Topping said: “That’s rather weird because we can’t, from this research, see any reason for that. There must be other things going on in the Scottish curriculum which are having some sort of adverse effect.”

He is now calling for more investigations to ascertain why strong implementation is not being matched by improvements in standards.

The study used data from 852,295 students aged four to 18 across 3,243 schools UK-wide that use learning firm Renaissance’s literacy assessment tools, the Renaissance Accelerated Reader and Renaissance Star Reading.

The results were calculated by ranking student improvement from one to 100, with an average improvement score of 50. It looked at the average improvement made by pupils in each UK home nation on reading tests from the beginning of the year to the end.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said “As well as clarity about the standards expected in our classrooms and fully embedding literacy skills across the curriculum, we are providing £750 million over the lifetime of this parliament, through the Scottish Attainment Challenge, targeted at those children and young people most in need, to close the poverty-related attainment gap.

“In addition, the First Minister’s Reading Challenge, a dedicated programme to encourage a love of reading amongst Scotland’s young people, has proven hugely successful with over 75 per cent of local authority schools in Scotland signing up in the first year.”

Education Secretary John Swinney has unveiled plans to overhaul the education system, with the aim of handing more control to headteachers over the curriculum taught in their classrooms after admitting that the current status quo is “not an option”.

The latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) for 2015 found Scotland has tumbled down league tables for maths, reading and science when compared to 34 other developed countries and the UK’s three other home nations. Overall, Scotland has dropped from 11th to 23rd for reading since 2006, according to the report, published last December.

The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy published two years ago also found that reading standards among eight- and nine-year-olds in Scotland have fallen by 5 per cent since 2012.

Scottish Conservative education spokeswoman Liz Smith said: “The fact that Scotland is performing worse than other areas of the UK confirms the extent of the challenge that schools face under the SNP.”

Labour’s education spokesman Iain Gray said: “This is yet another disappointing report on literacy in Scotland.

“What is most damning in this report is that for all Nicola Sturgeon’s claims that education is her ‘defining mission’, we are trailing behind other parts of the UK in addressing the issue.”