We must stop rating reading skills on a bell curve – it lets us leave struggling pupils behind, says James Murphy

It is alarming that so many students arrive at secondary school not reading well enough to access the curriculum. It is even more alarming that we don’t believe these students can catch up.

The assumption that most secondary leaders work on is that low attainers are also low ability – that is, students who begin school further behind have less potential and will therefore stay behind.

The move to adjust Progress 8 points so that progress in the highest grades at GCSE was worth three times as much as progress in the lowest grades is a case in point for. The government claimed the change “protected” schools from being disadvantaged by large numbers of low attainers.

This move did nothing for the students concerned, however, and in many ways it has made matters worse. The message to school leaders is to focus on maximising the progress of the most able if they want to lift the school’s Progress 8 score. If you could put resources into extending 10 bright students or accelerating 10 weak students, which group would you invest in?

Under the incentives of the new regime, weaker students would only generate half as much bang for your buck

Under the incentives of the new regime, the weaker students would only generate half as much bang for your buck. Which is all a bit odd, since, if it’s so hard to get progress from low attainers, shouldn’t it be their progress that is double-weighted?

Secondary schools are particularly prone to a passive approach to reading problems.

While the ‘Read On. Get On’ campaign identified that 20 per cent of children arriving at secondary school are not reading well enough, the OECD identified that 17 per cent of 15-year-olds were at or below the lowest standards of literacy, and in a separate report found that the UK is the only country in the world where our 15- to 24-year-olds are less literate than their grandparents’ generation. A longitudinal study currently under way at Royal Holloway University has found that the reading gap between different attainment groups largely remains constant throughout secondary school.

The widespread belief in secondary schools that struggling readers cannot catch up is a myth. There is now clear evidence that all children, except those with the most severe disabilities, can learn to read well. Reading is the richest area of educational research, and that research is converging around how best to ensure that all children learn to read, even – or especially – those for whom reading does not come naturally. It appears that the processes of learning to read are very similar at any age. If we teach students explicitly and systematically, applying a high degree of rigour to our own practice, they can catch up.

One reason for our systemic assumption of reading failure is our fixation with the bell curve. Because reading scores can be arranged on a normal distribution, we assume that students at the lower end cannot be good at reading. But this is not the case. For example, over three years, my previous school in north London ensured every student could read. In my current work, we typically see gains of several years over a few months, in students with a long history of struggling to read. That’s not to say it’s easy work, but reading is too important to neglect.

For critical skills – such as driving cars or flying planes – we use a proficiency test, not a bell curve. Reading is critical to life chances, so we need a minimum standard of reading proficiency that all children must reach before sitting their GCSEs, and for which schools are held accountable. Yes, we would still have a bell curve in terms of relative abilities, but the whole curve would move to the right, so that the proportion of children who really couldn’t read was tiny.

Currently poor literacy is estimated to affect six million adults in the UK, and to cost our economy between £23 billion and £31 billion per annum. That’s at least half of the annual schools budget. If the system were to genuinely prioritise reading so that every child leaves school reading fluently, we would transform not just the educational landscape, but our whole society.

Can it be done? Certainly, with the political will, and the humility to learn how. The political will is required at the policy level, but humility is needed at the coalface.

James Murphy is school partnerships director at Thinking Reading