Reading ability in Flemish schools hits 20-year low


The three-yearly Pisa study shows a decline in reading comprehension in Flanders’ secondary schools

Wake-up call

Reading comprehension among Flemish teenagers has fallen sharply over the past three years, according to a study carried out for the OECD. The decline is so significant that Flanders has dropped out of the top 10 countries in reading ability for the first time since the survey began in 2000.

According to Flemish education minister Ben Weyts, the results should come as a wake-up call. “The situation is serious, but not hopeless,” he added.

The findings come from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which measures the abilities of 15-year-olds across 79 countries every three years. In the 2018 exercise, 4,882 pupils were assessed from 172 schools in Flanders.

One in five of the Flemish pupils tested did not demonstrate the minimum level of reading skill. This means that they cannot use texts properly or extract the most important information from them. They also do not enjoy reading, with 60% saying they only read if they have to, and half calling reading a waste of time.

We have concrete plans for a stronger focus on language and mathematics

- Education minister Ben Weyts

Mathematical and scientific literacy in Flanders has also fallen sharply, with 17% of pupils ranked as low performers in maths and 18% as low performers in science. The government of Flanders has already taken steps to address these shortcomings, particularly in early education.

“We have concrete plans for a stronger focus on Dutch in nursery schools, achievement targets that give more importance to language and mathematics, and region-wide tests that measure learning improvements,” Weyts explained.

Meanwhile he has asked the OECD’s senior advisor on education, Dirk Van Damme – also a geology professor at Ghent University – to put together a team of independent experts to examine the situation in Flanders. The team is to make concrete suggestions for improving the quality of education by next year.

“It will certainly take 10 years before we see the effects of our approach,” Weyts concluded. “In the short term, there will be no measurable results. But we must turn the tanker around.”

Photo: Skynesher/Getty Images