Teacher reading to children
The schools minister, Nick Gibb, said England’s success follows the introduction of the phonics screening check in 2012 and in 2018 the English hubs programme, a scheme designed to develop expertise in teaching reading in schools.

According to a new study, children in England are better at reading than anywhere else in the Western world.

A Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), the most extensive global comparison of its kind, found that England has risen from eighth to fourth, higher than anywhere else in Europe or the United States.

PIRLS is conducted every 5 years and is recognised as the global standard for assessing trends in reading achievement in the fourth grade, the equivalent to Year 5 in the Britain.

However, its 2021 findings were delayed by the pandemic, so they have only just been released.

The study is administered at a key transition stage in children's reading development: the change from learning to read to reading to learn.

​​A total of 43 countries submitted comparable results from children in Year 5 or equivalent who sat reading tests in spring 2021 or spring 2022, around the age of ten.

In addition to reading assessment, the PIRLS school, teacher, student and home questionnaires gather extensive information about the contextual factors at home and school which are associated with the teaching and learning of reading.

The previous PIRLS study, which took place in 2016, found that although England achieved a score significantly above the International Median, it scored far below the top performers.

This time around, there was a notable improvement.

Although still behind Singapore, Hong Kong and Russia, England rose four places, scoring 558 points compared with 559 in 2016, when it was joint eighth with Norway and Taiwan.

The findings of the study also suggest that lockdowns as a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic only had a limited impact on the reading development of children in Britain.

Research has found that some children spent more time reading during lockdowns, so this skill suffered less than writing and maths. This was also evident in last year's Sats results, taken at the end of primary school.

However, academics have expressed their concern about the widening gap between girls and boys.

In nearly all countries, boys scored worse than girls, the same in a few, but better in none.

In England, that gap shrunk, but it was more because girls did worse than in 2016.

Girls scored 562 points, down from 566, while boys achieved 553 points in England, up from 551.

Commenting on this gender divide, Dr Dirk Hastedt, executive director of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement said it was concerning because good reading ability had an impact across the curriculum and was crucial for all pupils.

"There are still these huge differences between boys and girls and, in some countries, there is even an increased difference in favour of girls ... More boys are saying they do not like reading and don't want to read, and that's having an impact on reading achievement," Hastedt explained.

Boy reading
Recent reports on the impact of the pandemic suggest the reading gap between boys and girls has widened. Blend Images via Getty Images

The education expert also said it was important for schools to provide books that interested boys.

Despite performing well academically, England was ranked much lower regarding pupils' confidence in their reading ability or enjoyment of reading.

Only 29 per cent of pupils said they very much enjoyed it, putting England 42nd out of 57 countries on that measure. More children in England said they did not enjoy reading than those in Spain, France, Morocco, Saudi Arabia or Kazakhstan.

However, referring to Britain's overall improvement in its ranking, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak welcomed the findings.

"These results also show a welcome narrowing in the attainment gap between boys and girls and the highest and lowest performing pupils," the prime minister said. "This shows that our approach is working. While there is always more progress to be made, pupils and teachers across the country should be incredibly proud of this achievement today."

The Schools White Paper, titled "Opportunity for All", was released by the Government last year.

It declared that any child who falls behind in Maths or English will get the support they need to get back on track.

As part of this approach, schools would identify children who need help, provide targeted support via a range of proven methods such as small group tuition, and keep parents informed about their child's progress.

This pledge was intended to support the government's Levelling Up mission for education, previously set out in the Levelling Up White Paper, which aimed for 90% of primary school children to achieve the expected standard in Key Stage 2 reading, writing and maths by 2030.

In 2019, only 65% of children achieved this standard, with the covid pandemic exacerbating challenges.

Furthermore, recent data has suggested that the traditional education systems in Britain may be to blame for a skills gap in the tech industry.

Over the past few months, the demand for qualified IT professionals in Britain has soared, but in the age of automation and rapid technological change, education is still predominantly based on a "factory" model of teaching and learning.

Although the recent PIRLS results suggest that Britain's education strategy may be heading in the right direction, some believe it has been achieved despite the government's policy.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that the findings are "a badly needed piece of good news for an education system that feels beleaguered."

"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," he added.

Over the past few months, hundreds of thousands of teachers have been striking over pay.

With working conditions affected by the pandemic and then a cost-of-living crisis, unions have been pitted against the government, which insists big pay hikes are unaffordable and will only fuel inflation.

Alongside salaries, which workers say have not kept up with inflation, other issues include conditions, job security and pensions.