IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Early-intervention literacy programme for struggling children closes GCSE attainment gap

5 December 2018

Children are more than twice as likely to achieve five or more good GCSEs including English and mathematics after following UCL’s Reading Recovery programme, compared to peers matched by ability who didn't participate, according to new research.

School children reading at Read Aloud event

Reading Recovery, which in Europe, is run by the International Literacy Centre at the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) provides literacy support for the lowest-attaining five- and six-year olds through daily one-to-one reading sessions with trained specialist teachers.

In a new 10-year analysis, funded by the KPMG Foundation, researchers show that the programme can help close the attainment gap between the lowest achieving children and their peers by the time they reach GCSE level.

Professor Jane Hurry and Dr Lisa Fridkin (IOE) found that, when compared to the lowest attaining children who did not participate in the programme (the comparison group), children who benefited from Reading Recovery were:

  • More than twice as likely to achieve five or more good GCSEs including English and mathematics: 49% vs 23% in the comparison group
  • Less likely to leave school with no qualifications: 2% vs 7% in the comparison group
  • Performing only 5% below the national average at age 16 in GCSEs, despite having been in the bottom 10% of readers at age six 
  • Requiring no intensive special-needs support (a Statement of Special Educational Needs, or Education, Health and Care Plan [ECHP]), while 10% of the comparison group had a Statement or EHCP at age 14, and 9% at age 16

They also found that Reading Recovery has the potential to deliver up to £1.2 billion to the economy in the form of increased lifetime earnings and reduced costs for special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) services.

Professor Gemma Moss, Director of the UCL International Literacy Centre (ILC), said: “Tracking the impact of early interventions over the long-term is unusual in education, yet it is a key element in building an evidence-informed profession. 

“Too many children across the UK experience great difficulty learning to read and will face diminished life chances because of it, without early intervention. Difficulties start early and tend to persist. They are particularly common in disadvantaged children. 

“Children who come into Reading Recovery exhibit considerable difficulty in learning literacy skills, and need individual tuition with a highly trained teacher to be able to progress. Reading Recovery is a profound and long-lasting early intervention programme which is essential in narrowing the gap between poor readers and their peers.” 

Learning to read

Building on these findings, a further study by charity Pro Bono Economics, calculates that across the 101,000 children in England who took part in Reading Recovery between 2005/06 and 2016/17, for every £1 invested (£290 million in total) the programme has the potential to deliver a return  to UK society of up to £4.30 (£1.2 billion in total) by improving long-term outcomes for each child over the course of their lifetimes.

The potential benefit of Reading Recovery support was calculated as being up to £12,100 for each child, compared to around £2,800 in costs – a net benefit up to £9,300 per child. Of this:

  • Up to £9,100 is attributed to a child’s higher lifetime earnings as a result of increased employment and higher wages
  • £2,900 per child represents savings to local authorities, since children are less likely to require a Statement of Special Educational Needs (SEN) or an Education, Health and Care plan (EHCP).

The current research forms a key legacy of the Every Child a Reader programme, which ran from 2005 to 2011 and was backed by the KPMG Foundation in collaboration with IOE, government, and a coalition of funders. Reading Recovery was at the heart of the school-wide Every Child a Reader strategy.

Currently 18% of children do not meet the expected standards in the Year 1 phonics test according to the latest government data, highlighting the need for further support for some of the most hard-to-reach children. In 2018, more than 20,000 11-year-olds had reading standards so low that they either could not be entered for the National Reading Test or took the test but did not achieve any score.

Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, and Co-Founder and Trustee of Pro Bono Economics, said: “The UK fares poorly in international league tables of basic literacy and numeracy. Programmes like Reading Recovery have the potential to move the societal dial in ways which, longer-term, could boost the skills and productivity of people, and the economy at large. I welcome the timely and important report from Pro Bono Economics and the KPMG Foundation.”

Melanie Richards, Chair of The KPMG Foundation, said: “The KPMG Foundation was established 18 years ago to drive social change. Supporting the work of those with innovative solutions aimed at tackling the big challenges facing some of the most hard-to-reach in our society, this project is the culmination of 10 years of work. 

“The impact of poor literacy and numeracy skills cannot be understated. All too often a child’s life chances are mapped out from an early age based on their background rather than their potential, and this is something we must change. 

“It is heartening to see from this research that, by investing in targeted early intervention programmes, the long-term negative impacts of poor literacy skills can be prevented.”

Media contact

Rowan Walker, UCL Media Relations 
T: +44 (0) 20 3108 8515 / +44 (0) 7769 141006
E: rowan.walker@ucl.ac.uk