By Hilary Mason, an education consultant, trainer and writer

LO, there’s a gold star!

Up to their elbows as they are at this time of year in glue, glitter, tessellating snowflakes and Christmas show rehearsals, primary school teachers may not have had time to notice that they have just been given a shiny gold star.

In his 2014/2015 annual report published at the beginning of December, OfSTED’s chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw has this to say:

 “There are now around 1.4 million more children in good or outstanding schools than there were five years ago. Much of this improvement is as a result of better primary school performance across England… I am pleased to report that 85% of teaching is good or outstanding in primary schools, with little variation at a regional level.”

The report goes on to say that the proportion of seven year olds reaching the expected standards in reading at Key Stage 1 has also improved over the last three years and now stands at 90%, while at Key Stage 2, 80% reached the required standards in reading, writing and maths – up from 74% in 2012.

Great stuff, primary heads and teachers, you deserve, not just a gold star, but a medal for the Olympian effort and dedication you have made to bring about such impressive progress. As a former primary teacher myself I really understand what making that progress entails.

Job done then?                                               

Now, I don’t wish to play Scrooge to Sir Michael’s Santa Claus, but these overall improvement figures tell only part of the story. It’s a much more complex plot than that.

Last year at least 63,000 children left primary school unable to read to the expected level. For those children, picking up an adventure story and losing themselves in the plot, skimming through an information book or reading the instructions on a computer game isn’t an option. Accessing the secondary curriculum will be a serious battle many of them won’t win.

Attitude problems

There is another deeply troubling aspect to the whole story of children’s attainment and engagement with reading in this country. In a nutshell, compared with children in most other countries surveyed by PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) our children don’t like reading very much.  For far too many of our children, reading is a chore not a joy – something to be got through at school and avoided at all costs once the bell goes. Sad, but true. This negative attitude to reading has a direct impact on their attainment, not just in reading but across the whole curriculum.

Assessment without levels

So, beneath the 80% reaching the required standards in literacy at the end of their primary schooling we have vast numbers of children who are struggling to read at all, and a population of children who may be able to read but who chose not to. Quite a problem. Against this backdrop, teachers now have to get to grips with radical changes to assessment for learning necessitated by the implementation of the new national curriculum. Having spent decades working with levels of attainment, these have now been scrapped. From September 2015, national curriculum levels will no longer be used for statutory assessments. The new literacy landscape features ‘assessment without levels’… so more like the Fens than the Peak District? 

Hark… there are tidings of comfort and joy!

This is the festive season, so let’s focus on the positive. There is cause for celebration, and it’s all about Reading for Pleasure. It’s so important that I’ve used capitals where there really shouldn’t be any. Here we have reached Beanstalk’s heartland.

Inspiring children to read for pleasure – as well as for decoding with phonics and reading for comprehension - is now recognised by the Department for Education and the inspectorate as an essential element of raising attainment in literacy. It’s taken a long time to get this far. But that’s another story.

Frankly, the body of research evidence demonstrating the relationship between positive attitudes to reading and educational and social success is so strong that you’d have to be an ostrich not to accept it.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) goes so far as to say that reading for pleasure is even more important than social class in determining academic success.

England’s children and young people have a way to go in the reading for pleasure journey. And this is precisely where Beanstalk comes in. Helping children to overcome the barriers that stand in the way of their success with - and love of - reading is what Beanstalk’s trained reading helpers do best. It’s the magic they weave. Don’t take my word for it. Here is my favourite teacher quote from this year’s Beanstalk schools survey:

It's all about the quality of the volunteers ... they sprinkle our children with their magical reading fairy dust and open up the wonderful world of books to them.”

And what better news could we want than that?

Happy Christmas to Beanstalk’s staff and the 3,000 amazing trained reading helpers who last year supported 11,000 children struggling with reading and confidence in 1,200 schools. You are awesome. 

If this kind of reading is a pleasure for you follow these links:

OFSTED Annual Report 2014/15

Final report of the Commission on Assessment Without Levels | September 2015

National Union of Teachers: Reading for Pleasure

Department of Education: Research evidence on reading for pleasure | May 2012