Speech: Nicky Morgan: improving child literacy in England

Thank you very much for that kind introduction. It’s brilliant to be here today.

And it’s a huge pleasure to be working with David [Walliams].

When you want to get more children reading, the support of one of the most popular children’s authors in the country is absolutely invaluable.

David and I have joined forces because we each believe in the importance of reading.

Standing here, it’s easy to forget that there are still, in this country, too many children for whom reading is a closed book.

One in 5 children still leaves primary school unable to read well enough to do well at secondary school – a figure that rises to 1 in 3 of our poorest children.

And what makes that even more heartbreaking is that they’re not just missing out on the immense joy of reading – that magical sense of being taken out of yourself, exploring new worlds and discovering characters you grow to love that stay with you for the rest of your life; but they’re also locked out of all of the opportunities the rest of their education has to offer.

It’s no surprise that people with strong reading skills are more likely to succeed at school, achieve good qualifications, find a rewarding and enjoyable career, even to enjoy good health.

Those who miss out on reading all too often miss out on those other advantages too.

Throughout their lives as adults, their problems with reading will all too often translate into frustration and failure, leaving them unable to realise their talents – something I often hear first-hand as a constituency member of Parliament.

That’s why we view our mission to tackle child illiteracy as a cornerstone of our commitment to social justice.

It’s why this one-nation government is absolutely determined to make sure that every child, no matter where they live or what their background, learns to read confidently.

So we’ve set ourselves an ambitious challenge over the next 5 years: to make children in this country become the most proficient in Europe.

It’s a bold ambition.

Although international surveys show that children in this country are relatively good in reading, our 9- and 10-year-olds are still ranked sixth in Europe, putting us behind places like Northern Ireland and Finland.

And of course, even if we run to catch up, those other countries won’t stand still.

So we don’t just need to match them; we need to overtake them.

Now that won’t be easy.

But that international study of 9- and 10-year-olds – The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study – reveals something very interesting.

The best readers in this country are already the best readers in Europe – beating even the top performers in Finland, number 1 in the rankings.

What’s holding us back is a long tail of underachievement, which leaves far too many young people behind, in particular the most disadvantaged.

That long tail of underachievement is nothing short of a scandal, and it’s why we need to help all schools and all pupils to reach the high level that our best readers are already achieving.

Which is why we’re here today.

Over the last 5 years we’ve taken some big steps forward, starting from the very beginning of children’s education, because getting reading right at the start of primary sets up a virtuous circle.

Children are more confident, so they read more, so they become even more confident and keep on reading more.

Before children even arrive in schools, our reforms to early years are helping them to acquire the language, skills and vocabulary they need to learn to read.

Our reformed national curriculum and more demanding qualifications and accountability system will set higher standards for literacy at every age.

More 6-year-olds are already on track to becoming strong readers through phonics.

And as the results published today have shown, that adds up to 120,000 more 6-year-olds on track to becoming strong readers in just 4 years.

We’ve invested in helping more schools to improve their phonics teaching because international evidence shows that systematic phonics is the most effective way to teach all children to read.

Phonics involves teaching pupils the basic letter sounds of the English language, and how they blend together to form words in a structured and systematic fashion – just like you do here at Charles Dickens Primary School. And I’d particularly like to recognise the work of the Minister of State for Schools Nick Gibb, who is championing this work.

We know that 99% of pupils who met the expected standard in the phonics check in 2014 went on to achieve or exceed the expected level in reading at the end of key stage 1 this year, helping drive up the overall number achieving or exceeding that level from 85% to 90% in just 5 years.

At the end of primary school, we’ve seen the number of pupils meeting the expected standard in reading rise, which translates to over 33,000 children in the last 5 years alone.

And reading well at primary school is the best preparation for doing well at secondary.

Our reformed curriculum and exams mean that children are now being introduced to more stretching literature and studying more ambitious GCSEs and A levels.

And because we don’t want any young people to fall behind, we’ve changed the rules so that every 16-year-old who doesn’t achieve a C grade in English GCSE has to continue to study the subject until the age of 18.

This year, that translated to over 4,000 more passes in English than the year before – thousands more young people starting adult life with one of the most crucial qualifications which employers expect and demand.

We’re making sure that no child falls through the cracks and is at risk of being left behind.

We’re starting children off at the beginning of primary school with phonics and using the phonics check to see that every child has made a good start to reading.

That’s why we’re also introducing resits in year 7 for children who don’t reach the required level at the end of primary, and after the age of 16, for young people who fall behind at GCSE.

These changes have already achieved results. And I want to take this opportunity to thank every single teacher, all over the country, who has worked hard to drive up standards.

But if we want to become the best in Europe, these improvements won’t take us far enough.

Now we’re going further.

We’re already raising standards of what we expect children to achieve at key stage 2 – raising the bar to encourage more children to work at the level top performers have already reached, to raise standards overall.

To increase children’s enthusiasm for reading, earlier this summer I announced that we’re working with The Reading Agency to extend their popular Chatterbooks scheme, setting up brand new book clubs in hundreds more primary schools all over the country.

We’re also supporting The Reading Agency to get 8-year-olds enrolled at their local library and into the library habit early.

We know that library users are much more likely to read in their own time than non-library users – accessing the existing 3,142 public libraries open in this country.

And today I can announce that we will do more to ensure all schools learn from what the best schools, like Charles Dickens Primary, and from what those around the world are doing to make sure every pupil is able to read well.

Evidence provided by organisations such as the Education Endowment Foundation offers invaluable information on which approaches are most effective. And we’ll encourage schools to follow this evidence,
and to share their successes helping to drive up standards right across the country.

And we’ll keep encouraging schools to work together with the specific aim of improving literacy. Already in 8 phonics partnerships across the country, schools that excel at teaching early reading are supporting other schools that want to improve.

As well as how to read, we want all children to get to know the classics of English literature, especially if these books are not on their bookshelves at home.

Our ambition is that every secondary school should have sets of a wide range of classics so that whole classes can enjoy them together – books I loved as a teenager by authors like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or Emily Brontë.

I am delighted that a number of publishers are currently exploring how to make collections of our greatest novels available to schools at minimal cost – and I encourage more to get involved.

Schools like St George’s Church of England Primary in Battersea, which is being visited today by the Minister of State for Schools Nick Gibb – a school which, despite many of its pupils coming from a high level of deprivation, demonstrates that disadvantage need not be a barrier to reading and writing well.

But we won’t just achieve our goal through schools and the government working alone.

The voluntary sector is playing a key role in raising literacy and I want to pay particular tribute to the ‘Read On. Get On’ campaign for their work in not only raising the profile of this important issue, but also in bringing together schools, charities and businesses committed to improving young people’s life chances.

And as the ‘Read On. Get On’ campaign has already highlighted, perhaps more than any other group, the support of families is crucial.

We want as many parents as possible to get behind our ambition, and to help their children to become excellent readers. We’ll be releasing new resources to help them do just that.

We will strengthen our emphasis on literacy in the critical early years because we know that by the age of 5, children from better-off backgrounds are over a year ahead in vocabulary compared to their disadvantaged peers, according to evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study.

So I am also announcing the launch today of an updated guide for parents – 4Children’s ‘What to expect, when?’ – which helps parents and carers understand how their child is learning and developing during their first 5 years.

It will emphasise the importance of language, communication and literacy and provides links to excellent supporting activities and resources.

There is no silver bullet, no magic wand we can wave to magically transform literacy for every child in this country.

But we owe it to our young people to explore every possible path when it comes to getting them reading well, to break down any barriers, support any who are left behind, to introduce every child from every background to our incredibly rich heritage of world-famous children’s literature.

Then we can trust those books to do the rest.

As Roald Dahl wrote:

Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: you are not alone.

Every single child in this country deserves to hear that message too – deserves to travel the world by the power of imagination, invention and glorious words.

That’s why we want to make this country the best in Europe, if not the world. And that’s why we’ve all come here today.

Thank you again to David for his support, and to all of you for working with us to make this ambition happen.

In 5 years’ time, we can start a new chapter as the best readers in Europe, giving every child in this country, no matter where they live or what their background, the chance to become the author of their own life story.

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