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England moves to fourth in international rankings for reading

England came fourth out of the 43 countries that tested children of the same age in the Progress International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).
England came fourth internationally for primary reading proficiency in the highly anticipated Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) results. This continued success in PIRLS follows the focus on phonics and is driven by improvements for the least able pupils.
Despite disruption from the pandemic, England’s score remained stable following significant improvements in 2011 and 2016, coming fourth out of the 43 countries who tested the standard 9-10-year-old cohort. Direct comparison of countries’ performance between 2016 and 2021 is complicated by Covid-19 disruption.
England’s score of 558 was well above the international average of 520 and the European average of 524.
The PIRLS rankings are widely regarded as the international benchmark for primary reading capability and are typically carried out every five years.
This success follows on from a series of reforms to improve standards in reading including the introduction of the Phonics Screening Check and the introduction of the English Hubs programme. To celebrate England’s performance, Schools Minister Nick Gibb visited a leading English Hub, the Jerry Clay Academy in Wakefield, to take part in a literacy class and see first-hand the improvement in reading standards.
The Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, said:
Driving up literacy rates is central to our plan to grow the economy, one of my 5 key priorities, so it’s great to see England move up to fourth in the international rankings for reading.
These results also show a welcome narrowing in the attainment gap between boys and girls and the highest and lowest performing pupils.
This shows that our approach is working. Thanks to our brilliant teachers, our tireless pursuit of standards, the pioneering English Hubs programme and the introduction of the Phonics Screening Check – more children are reading confidently and reaching their potential.
While there is always more progress to be made, pupils and teachers across the country should be incredibly proud of this achievement today.
Schools Minister Nick Gibb said:
Driving up standards in literacy has been the Government’s long-term priority, and our focus over the past decade has been on improving the teaching of reading through the tried and tested approach of phonics.
With the introduction of the Phonics Screening Check and the English Hubs Programme, we have given students across the country a solid foundation in reading, and as today’s results show, one which is internationally recognised.
I am grateful to all the teachers and teaching assistants who have made this possible. Not only are they giving their pupils skills vital for success in their later education, but also a lifelong love and respect for one of life’s greatest pleasures.
The Department for Education introduced the Phonics Screening Check in 2012, to ensure every 6-year-old is on track with their reading. In 2012, only 58% reached the expected standard, by 2019 just before the pandemic this had reached 82%.
The £60 million English Hubs programme was rolled out in 2018 and is designed to develop expertise in teaching reading in schools. The lead schools work with partner schools by modelling best practice and providing expert teachers to help them raise reading standards through phonics. Analysis published today shows that partner schools supported by the English Hubs Programme outperformed other schools by around 7 percentage points in their Phonics Screening Checks.
PIRLS also showed both the gender gap, between boys and girls scores, and the attainment gap, between the highest and lowest performing pupils, are continuing to narrow. Equally, the attainment gap between pupils who like reading “very much” and those who “do not like” reading has also decreased to its lowest ever level, meaning even pupils who do not enjoy reading are still proficiently skilled in it.
Our robust approach to teaching early reading proved essential to protecting reading proficiency from Covid-19 disruption. Only 11 of the 43 countries which tested pupils of the same age in PIRLS 2021 were able to avoid significant declines in their scores, including England.
The pandemic caused disruption to the study itself, with some countries testing pupils of the standard age range in 2021, others delaying testing by 6 months and testing older children, and others delaying testing by a whole year. To minimise disruption in schools during the pandemic, England tested a year later in 2022 meaning that England was testing the standard age group, allowing direct comparisons to be drawn.
The IEA, the organisers of the study, have decided that direct comparisons to countries who delayed the assessment and tested older children should not be drawn. This means countries like Ireland and Northern Ireland are not presented in the main rankings, although their scores are still available to view.