The reading problem in our secondary schools is serious but solvable.

I have long been pleased that the Minister for Schools, Nick Gibb, is a fan of the knowledge curriculum and a promoter of effective early reading instruction through systematic synthetic phonics, informed by the use of the Phonics Check – so I was looking forward to hearing him speak yesterday at researchED 2017 in Stratford.


The introduction of the Phonics Check is important: not as it is often wilfully mis-described, but as a check on the impact of our ‘teaching’ (not the teacher, and certainly not the child). The Check enables us to change the teaching, should we need to.

However, until we have uniformity in the effective teaching of early reading, we will continue to see children arrive at secondary school reading well behind. While some schools have adopted effective early reading practices, there is evidence that some schools still use a ‘mixed methods’ approach (with a sprinkling of phonics), or teach using multi-cueing, with phonics as a strategy of last resort.

So we are still not in the clear as far as early reading instruction. Then there is the assumption that two or three good years at the start is all that is needed to ensure good reading. This is what some US researchers call ‘the fallacy of inoculation’, where we expect that all the additional reading skills students need to master – for example, comprehension and reasoning strategies, vocabulary, text and genre conventions, and so on – will all fall into place if they have good early reading. That seems an unjustified level of optimism. There are lots of reasons that students might arrive at secondary school with reading difficulties. We can’t just hope it will be all right.

A key question that appears to have been largely ignored at government level is the extent of reading problems at secondary school. There is no way of knowing this, since there are no official systems for collecting this information. However, we can make inferences from Key Stage 2 data. Under the new measures used in 2016 and 2017, it’s difficult to know how far behind the children who did not meet the ‘expected standard’ have fallen. The headlines are that 34% did not meet that standard in 2016, and 29% did not meet it in 2017.

We can learn more detail from the 2015 KS2 SATs reading data, which we analysed by region and local authority. This data is still very relevant because these students are now at the start of Year 9, in the middle of their secondary schooling. We looked at students who were reading at Level 3 or below, since in curriculum terms this indicated a gap of at least two years between their actual and expected achievement.

The regions with the highest proportion of students reading at Level 3 or below were: Yorkshire and the Humber 14.3%, West Midlands 13.3%, East Midlands and East of England 12.5%.

Looking at the regions in more detail, the local authorities with the greatest level of need (15%+) were:

  • Yorkshire and the Humber – Bradford 17.5% (1= nationally), NE Lincolnshire 16.3% (3), Rotherham 16% (4=), Sheffield 15.8% (6=), Wakefield 15.3% (10=), North Lincolnshire and Kingston-Upon-Hull 15% (12=)
  • East of England – Peterborough 17.5% (1=) and Luton 15.5% (8=)
  • South East England – Medway 16% (4=)
  • East Midlands – Leicester 15.8% (6=), Nottingham 15.5% (8=) and Derby 15.3% (10=)
  • West Midlands – Coventry 15% (12=)

The total number of local authorities with 10%+ students reading at Level 3 or below:


Overall, it appears that at least 10% of the school population, on average, has serious reading problems when they arrive at secondary school. If there are 3.5 million students in English secondary schools, that means 350,000 of them ought to be getting some extra help from their schools to solve the problem. The total cost  to the UK economy of low literacy is estimated at upwards of £23 billion – per year. So there is a huge incentive for us, as a society, to address this problem at secondary schools, before it hits the workforce.

At the end of the session, questions were invited from the floor: I commended Mr Gibb on his advocacy of SSP but, as there are currently 20% of children arriving at secondary school reading well behind their age, I asked whether the government had any plans to put measures in place to ensure that these students don’t continue to fall through the cracks. His response was, perhaps understandably, focused on the policies he was most familiar with – the Phonics Check and the (now shelved) plan to have Year 7 resits for those who had ‘failed’ SATs the first time around.

Given that there are now strong research findings that enable us to target very effective instruction towards these students, I followed up with Mr Gibb afterwards and appreciated him taking the time to engage. He was no doubt somewhat on the back foot, but I must say that I was alarmed when he said that ‘incentivising’ secondary schools to address reading problems would be ‘too unpopular’. I can only imagine that he was thinking of the SATs resit policy, since most secondary school teachers I know would be delighted to see a resolution to the literacy problems that constantly confound their efforts.


A good example of appropriately incentivising schools was the original Progress 8 structure which recognised the success of schools who enabled their low attainers to make good progress. Unfortunately, alleged pressure from some headteachers is what caused the government to backtrack, making progress at lower grades worth only one-third of progress at higher grades. Reading, of course, affects all areas of academic achievement as well as having important benefits for health, employment and longevity. What I tried, perhaps unsuccessfully, to convey to the minister was that the reading problem at secondary school is eminently solvable, and that students can catch up, rapidly and completely, with effective instruction.

I would prefer to see the same commitment and drive to addressing older students reading problems as has been evident in the government’s policy towards the Phonics Check. In any case, surely popularity is less important than improving the lives of hundreds of thousands of students and their families? I suppose that there may be some headteachers who would find such a policy unwelcome, but I expect that it would also be very popular with students and their parents.

You may also be interested in:

Peeling Back the Layers

Pulling the Strands Together

Building on the Evidence

Literacy Leadership: Return on Investment

Can’t Read, Won’t Read


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