Literacy in English schools at 'Dickensian-era levels' warns minister as classics are ignored

Dickensian levels of illiteracy still plague parts of England despite decades of increases in state spending on education, a minister declared yesterday.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb said ‘shadows of Charles Dickens’s world’ persisted in the country’s poorest areas despite major social advances. Expectations of children moving through the school system were too ‘modest’, with teachers settling too often for a ‘good enough’ standard, he claimed.

The result was under-achievement by thousands of youngsters, with one in six still struggling to read fluently by the age of 11.

In a speech on the 200th anniversary of the author’s birth, Mr Gibb warned that, just as in Victorian times, literacy problems were ‘heavily orientated towards the poorest in our communities’. ‘We need – if you’ll forgive the Dickens pun – much greater expectations of children in reading,’ he added.

He also said pupils at primary school should be encouraged to read ‘complex’ books by authors such as Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson and Roald Dahl, while secondary pupils should read at least one Dickens novel during their teens.

Classic works of literature were being ignored, he warned, with tens of thousands of pupils gaining GCSEs in English literature without studying any books written before the 20th century.

More than 90 per cent of answers on novels in English literature papers were on the same three works – Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird. Out of more than 300,000 who took the country’s most popular paper last year, just 1,236 read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, 285 read Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd and 187 read Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

‘Unfortunately, even when young people do wish to read, the exam system does not encourage them,’ Mr Gibb said. Despite a wide curriculum, ‘the English Literature GCSE only actually requires students to study four or five texts, including one novel’. He also claimed children in England were ‘falling out of love’ with reading.

A study of 65 developed nations ranked the UK at 47th for the number of children who read for pure enjoyment, he said. Some 40 per cent of pupils did not read for pleasure, against just 10 per cent in Kazakhstan and Albania.

Mr Gibb said the current target set for 11-year-olds at the end of primary school – that they reach level four in reading – was too ‘modest’. Youngsters should aspire to the elite level five, he said.

A survey of 500 employers by the Confederation of British Industry last year found that 42 per cent were dissatisfied with school-leavers’ basic skills, while army recruiting officers have warned that hundreds of would-be soldiers have been turned away for failing basic literacy and numeracy tests.

Mr Gibb’s speech came as he launched a national reading competition designed to encourage seven to 12-year-olds – especially boys – to read more fiction.


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