The results saw English pupils leapfrog those in high-performing countries like Finland and Poland in the rankings, while pupils in Singapore topped the league table, followed by Hong Kong in second place and Russia coming in third.
Despite the improvement in ranking, England’s score remained virtually unchanged since the last round of assessments in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), which took place in 2016, with its average actually dropping marginally from 559 to 558.
Other countries, however, saw their scores fall significantly over a period in which there was widespread disruption to education due to the Covid pandemic. Only 11 of the 43 countries that tested pupils of the same age in Pirls 2021 managed to avoid significant declines, including England.
Finland’s score went down from 566 in 2016 to 549, while Poland’s dropped from 565 to 549, still well above the international average of 520 and the European average of 524. At the top of the table Singapore achieved an average score of 587, Hong Kong 573 and Russia 567.
Tuesday’s results were welcomed by Rishi Sunak, who said: “Driving up literacy rates is central to our plan to grow the economy, one of my five key priorities, so it’s great to see England move up to fourth in the international rankings for reading.”
The government also highlighted a narrowing in the attainment gap between highest and lowest performing pupils, and between boys and girls, though this appeared to be mainly down to a slight fall in girls’ average scores. “While there is always more progress to be made, pupils and teachers across the country should be incredibly proud of this achievement today,” said the prime minister.
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.
Asked about the decline in girls’ reading scores, Gibb said it was minimal. In England, girls had an average score of 562, compared with the boys’ average of 553, compared with 566 for girls and 551 for boys in 2016.
Dr Dirk Hastedt, the executive director of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), which administers Pirls, said the latest results reflected England’s improved performance in reading since 2006.
“Overall, we have to admit that teachers in England obviously did a good job despite Covid,” said Hastedt. “They were able to teach students so that they were among the countries without losses. That’s a significant achievement, so we can definitely congratulate teachers and schools for the amazing job they did during Covid-19.”
Jon Andrews, head of analysis at the Education Policy Institute, said: “Today’s Pirls results resonate with our own findings that outcomes in reading have been recovered to their pre-pandemic levels. However, our analysis also suggests that in maths, primary school pupils remain around one and a half months behind pre-pandemic norms in their learning.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “This is a badly needed piece of good news for an education system that feels beleaguered. These excellent results in reading standards of nine-10-year-olds are testament to the hard work, skill and dedication of primary school teachers and leaders.”
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