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Primary Education News
News England's seven-year-olds better at reading than Welsh peers
Pupils in England are also improving faster than their counterparts in Scotland, research shows
Seven-year-olds in England are better at reading than their peers in Wales and improving more quickly than their counterparts in Scotland, according to new research that highlights the diverging paths the home countries have taken since devolution in the 1990s.
Children in London outperformed all other regions in the study, published on Wednesday, suggesting that the concentration on early years education introduced by the previous Labour government, along with the rise in school quality in the capital, has paid off.
The research comes as tension over education changes has produced a split between London and Cardiff over exam and curriculum policy, with the Welsh government resisting many of the changes introduced by the coalition government and the Department for Education under Michael Gove.
The education systems in England and Scotland have long diverged over testing regimes, with pupils in England evaluated more often at so-called key stages.
Academics from Cardiff University compared the reading skills of children aged three, five and seven in the three countries, and found that while three-year-olds in England and Wales showed similar results, both lagged behind Scotland. But while the English children rapidly caught up with the Scots, children in Wales failed to do so.
In particular, children from low-income backgrounds in England did better at reading than similar age groups in both Scotland and Wales.
"[These] differences … suggest that the more 'comprehensive' and perhaps less target-driven systems of Wales and Scotland appear to be associated with greater inequalities in child development," the paper's authors say.
Professor Chris Taylor of Cardiff University's school of social sciences, who led the research, said: "The results are worrying for Wales as they suggest literacy development in the primary years is not as great as it is in England."
But the report's authors were careful to warn that "there is no single national 'success story', suggesting one education system in the UK is 'better' than another," because of long-standing social differences between the three countries.
In particular, the research found several background factors, including social class, ethnicity and educational levels of a child's parents, produced greater differences in pupils' results than the country they were from.
The researchers warned that the performance of youngsters in the capital may have an influence on England's overall reading levels.
"It is not entirely clear whether the apparent 'benefit' of living in England on literacy at age seven can be attributed to its distinctive national education policies," the study says.
"For example, differences found between England and the rest of the UK may in part be due to the significant improvement in cognitive development of children living in London.
"In turn, however, the differences between London and the rest of England may be due to the significant improvement of ethnic minority children who are concentrated in the capital."
The research found that children from ethnic and minority backgrounds had, on average, lower levels of literacy than their white peers at age three. But by age seven, ethnic and minority children had reversed the position.
On other measures, such as maths and reasoning, different countries had different outcomes. Welsh seven-year-olds were significantly ahead of their English and Scottish peers in reasoning, while in maths, English and Welsh pupils performed similarly at age seven, ahead of their Scottish age-group.
The Cardiff researchers said the work showed the complexities of comparing educational policies and outcomes within countries, let along between countries.
"In the case of education policy, the UK government has adopted an increasingly radical programme of change that has led to important differences with the other 'home countries' across the range of educational provision, from early years to higher education and lifelong learning," the researchers note.
The researchers used data from the on-going Millennium Cohort Study, which tracks the development of a year group of 19,000 children from their birth in 2000-2001. The study is to be presented to the British Educational Research Association's annual conference.
Wales and Northern Ireland have objected to proposed changes to GCSE and A-level exams, leading Gove to write to his counterparts in Belfast and Cardiff saying: "The time is right for us to acknowledge that three-country regulation of GCSEs and A-levels is no longer an objective towards which we should be working" – effectively ending co-operation between the three states on exam policy.
A DfE source said: "Labour politicians have let down children in Wales for years. They refuse to countenance any kind of change to fix a failing system. [Labour ministers] Kevin Brennan and Stephen Twigg will follow Wales's example, do what the teaching unions say and take England backwards."