07/02/2012 01:22 GMT | Updated 07/02/2012 05:45 GMT

Children's National Reading Competition Launched Days After Charles Dickens 'Warning'

Children should "always have a book on the go", schools minister Nick Gibb announced as he launched plans for a new national reading competition.

Youngsters who read for half an hour a day can be up to a year ahead in their schooling by age 15, Gibb suggested.

Starting in autumn, the government will be running a reading competition for seven to 12-year-olds in England, which aims to boost literacy standards and inspire youngsters to read.

It is understood the competition will be based around who can read the most books, with youngsters encouraged to read fiction in particular.

Details will be announced in the coming weeks, but there are expected to be local, regional and national prizes.

"Children should always have a book on the go," Gibb said. The difference in achievement between children who read for half an hour a day in their spare time and those who do not is huge - as much as a year's education by the time they are 15.

"A new national reading competition is designed to give a competitive spur to those reluctant readers who are missing out on the vast world of literature."

But Labour's shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said the announcement would do "nothing to help the 9,000 children who will miss out on one-to-one reading tuition this year", which he claimed was a drop of nearly half.

"Scrooge-like ministers say they want pupils to be able to read Dickens by age 11, but they will have a hard time if they are denied reading support at primary school.

"These are exactly the kind of pupils who need help the most - those who are at risk of falling behind with their reading and writing."

The announcement comes just days after Claire Tomalin, acclaimed biographer of Charles Dickens, warned today's youngsters do not have the attention span necessary to read one of his novels.

She said that Dickens' work is still "amazingly relevant" to modern life.

But she added: "The only caveat I would make is that today's children have very short attention spans because they are being reared on dreadful television programmes which are flickering away in the corner.

"Children are not being educated to have prolonged attention spans and you have to be prepared to read steadily for a Dickens novel and I think that's a pity."

The latest Government figures show that one in 10 boys leave primary school at the age of 11 with the reading age of a seven-year-old, while around one sixth (16%) of 11-year-olds do not achieve the level expected of their age group in reading.