SCOTTISH children are no longer the best at reading across the UK and Ireland – after being knocked off the top spot in a “stinging blow” to education leaders.

The largest literacy study ever conducted in the UK, written by Professor Keith Topping from the University of Dundee, has revealed that Scottish pupils are now joint second in terms of their level of reading comprehension – on a par with England and behind Northern Ireland.

 The What Kids Are Reading Report analysed the reading habits of 46,239 Scottish pupils, as well as a further 1.1 million young people across the UK and Ireland.

The study analysed the difficult of the books children were reading and the level of pupils’ comprehension. The research found that reading for pleasure is key to children’s attainment.

Despite the drop in reading comprehension, Scotland has climbed from the bottom of the table on reading more difficult books and is now in second place.

Professor Topping said: “Reading for pleasure is a vital component to literacy success but it is also important to encourage pupils to read more often and to pick books of appropriate reading difficulty for their age.

“The great news is that pupils’ favourite books tend to be of appropriate reading difficulty.

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"It is important that teachers and librarians instil a love of reading in schools by encouraging lively classroom discussions with children about their favourite authors and titles. They should also be on hand to advise on books with appropriate challenge bespoke to the child’s interests. Parents can also play a role by encouraging children to read at home on a daily basis.” 

Across the UK and Ireland, primary and secondary pupils are reading slightly more than last year – a one per cent increase. 

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Literacy is at the heart of Curriculum for Excellence and we are committed to ensuring that every child achieves the highest standards.

“PISA 2018 shows that the reading performance of Scotland’s 15 year olds is above the OECD average. Our own attainment data shows that 88 per cent of S3 pupils achieved CfE third level in literacy or better in 2018-19, with 48 per cent attaining at CfE fourth Level.

“We understand the central role of school libraries in helping to drive improvement, particularly in literacy, which is why we are investing £1 million over three years through our school library improvement fund. We are also encouraging reading for pleasure among children and young people through the First Minister’s reading challenge.”

Scottish Tory shadow education secretary, Jamie Greene, said the study was further proof that “standards are falling”.

He added: “Despite the very best efforts of teachers, parents across Scotland know that Scottish education is no longer the gold standard it was.

“Losing our top spot for reading among the home nations is a stinging blow to the SNP.

“It’s quite clear that 13 years of the SNP’s education policies have failed a generation of children.”

The revelation comes as Education Secretary John Swinney warned that closing the gap in achievement between Scotland’s poorest and richest pupils is “stubborn and challenging” – and admitted that support has “not been good enough”.

Mr Swinney was speaking after announcing the parameters of a widespread review into Scottish education, which will include curriculum design, support for teachers and looking at how pupils move into the senior phase of their learning.

In his speech to teachers and education leaders, Mr Swinney pleaded that the review does not become a “distraction or to create uncertainty in the education system” and stressed that the study “will not be a review of the whole of Scottish education”.

 The Education Secretary told teachers that “we now need a period of consolidation and stability to ensure improvements have time to become embedded”.

He added: “We cannot expect there to be a continual increase in pass rates in a qualification system with credibility and rigour.

He said that the Scottish Government was grappling with an ”uncomfortable truth” that approaches  in supporting “our most vulnerable children and young people have to date not been good enough”.

The attainment gap between the most deprived areas and the least deprived areas of Scotland has widened by 0.6 per cent from 2017/18 to 2018/19 for those pupils gaining at least one pass at Level 4, according to new data.  Analysis by the Scottish Government said this was due to a decrease in the proportion of leavers from the most deprived areas attaining one pass or more.

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In the SNP’s manifesto before the last Holyrood election, the party pledged to “close the attainment gap between young people from the most and those from the least affluent backgrounds”.

Mr Swinney added: “We know that the poverty-related attainment gap is a stubborn and challenging issue that has to be confronted. We have indicated that would take more than one parliamentary term for us to try and succeed on that objective."

“We started that work in 2015and I think we are making important progress but there will be further work that has to be done to take that forward over the next parliamentary term."

“It’s a combination of recognising that significant progress has been made but also about keeping a very clear sense of direction about what needs to be done in the next phase of our work.”