Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw issued a challenge to schools and teachers across England yesterday (March 15th) in a bid to drive up national literacy standards.
The education watchdog is concerned that improvements in literacy have plateaued in recent years and Her Majesty's chief inspector wants improvements to begin climbing upwards again.
Speaking to a gathering of outstanding primary and secondary teachers at Thomas Jones School in London, Sir Michael recognised the great strides that have been made in literacy over the years, but said that since 2008 this has stalled.
According to the former head teacher, one-fifth of children do not leave primary school having achieved the levels expected of them, with this figure rising to one in three for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
This means that in 2011, a total of 100,000 primary school pupils moved to secondary school without reaching the expected level of literacy.
It is estimated that as many as five million adults in England lack basic skills when it comes to literacy and Sir Michael said that England's literacy standards are now falling behind those in other nations.
"There can be no more important subject than English," he said.
"It is at the heart of our culture and literacy skills are crucial to pupils' learning for all subjects. Yet too many pupils fall behind in their literacy early on.
"In most cases, if they can't read securely at seven they struggle to catch up as they progress through their school careers."
Ofsted figures show that in 2011, 45 per cent of pupils who left secondary school at the low end of level 4 did not go on to achieve a grade C or above in GCSE English.
In light of this, the schools inspectorate has published a ten-step guide to raising standards, which includes a call on the government to reconsider whether level 4 is a high enough attainment target for children leaving primary school.
Calling on teaching staff to be passionate in their approach to literacy, Sir Michael said that Ofsted was determined to drive up standards and would focus inspections more towards literacy in the future.
"We don't need more research or more headline-grabbing initiatives which can't be sustained. Good leadership is the key to good literacy in schools," he said.
Offering enhanced professional development in phonics teaching for those in education jobs is high up the agenda, while taking more careful measures to track the literacy progress of pupils is also something the watchdog is encouraging.
Schools are now also being urged to inform parents of the reading age of their child with details about the expected levels laid out in the National Curriculum.
Sir Michael's announcement was welcomed by Jonathan Douglas, director of the National Literacy Trust, who said it was essential for schools to tackle the barriers that are currently preventing literacy standards from improving.
However, not everyone was as complimentary about the news, with some teaching unions critical of another prescription handed down from above.
General secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), Mary Bousted, criticised Ofsted for announcing that it will be focussing more on literacy six weeks after introducing a new inspection framework.
"Rather than producing a ten-step sound bite which merely restates existing practice, schools need support to develop classroom teaching, working together with good schools in their area," she said.
Meanwhile, Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said she was pleased Ofsted was recognising the importance of reading.
She commented, however, that the expertise of people in teaching jobs should be recognised, along with their ability to choose the correct approach to reading that suits their pupils.
Posted by Alan Douglas