England has gained a top five place in new international rankings for reading.
The latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, known as PIRLS, puts England in fourth place in a global education league table, based on tests which are typically carried out every five years.
Singapore scored the highest result, with an average score of 587, taking top place out of the 43 countries that tested the reading levels of nine and 10-year-olds at the end of the school year.
Second was Hong Kong with an average score of 573, followed by Russia (567) and England (558).
The rankings show that Finland had an average score of 549, the same as Poland, while Taiwan had an average score of 544, the same as Sweden.
Schools minister Nick Gibb said the Government’s reforms – such as a focus on phonics, which teaches children to read using sounds – are behind England’s successful performance despite disruption from the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the 2016 rankings, England came joint 8th place out of 50 countries with an average score of 559 – and Ireland and Northern Ireland were above England.
The pandemic caused disruption to the 2021 study and 14 countries – including Northern Ireland and Ireland – delayed testing until the start of the next school year which meant pupils were older when they were assessed.
The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), which runs the study, did not include this group of 14 countries in the main rankings table due to the different ages of the children being tested.
Overall, girls were ahead of boys in their reading achievement in nearly all the countries that took part in the 2021 study – and in England, girls had an average score of 562 and boys had an average score of 553.
The gender gap in reading performance in England has narrowed as girls’ average scores have fallen slightly, the data suggests.
In 2016, female pupils in England had an average score of 566, which is higher than the latest study, and their male peers had an average score of 551.
He said: “In terms of girls, we don’t want there to be any decline of any group within these reading surveys.
“But what’s significant is if you take the results overall we are not seeing a significant drop in our actual score despite all the challenges of the Covid-19 period – and when other countries amongst these 43 countries did see declines in their score.”
The Government said England’s success follows the introduction of the phonics screening check in 2012 – a measure of progress among Year 1 pupil – and the English Hubs programme in 2018, which is designed to develop expertise in teaching reading in schools.
Mr Gibb said: “The approach that the Government has taken, in the face of quite a lot of opposition from vested interests, has been successful in seeing children’s reading improving in this country.”
He added that the commitment of 250,000 primary school teachers to reading who have “embraced” the phonics approach has also contributed.
But the study found that only 29% of pupils in England said they “very much” enjoyed reading, compared with 42% internationally.
Overall, fewer pupils in England reported enjoying reading than in the last two cycles of PIRLS.
The schools minister said: “I do worry about making sure that the gains that children are making in maths and reading in primary school are sustained through secondary school as well.
“It’s really important in terms of social mobility that children continue to read regularly and for pleasure and that’s something that we’re still working on as a government,” he added.
“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.”
He added: “While there is always more progress to be made, pupils and teachers across the country should be incredibly proud of this achievement today.”
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.
“The Government is quick to claim that this is the outcome of its policies, but in truth, these results have been achieved despite the Government’s record of neglect which has led to a critical shortage of funding and teachers.
“The Prime Minister is right to praise our brilliant teachers, but he now needs to match this rhetoric with a decent, fully funded pay award which improves recruitment and retention and protects education standards.”
Dirk Hastedt, executive director of the IEA, told the PA news agency: “It’s very positive that England was able to maintain the same high achievement despite the Covid-19 pandemic that we have had, with all the school closures and other negative impacts on education.”
He said: “One might also assume that without Covid, the education would have been even improved further than that. England was on a positive trend since 2006 already.”