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Basic skills battle brought to all subjects

Vicky Owen's job is to teach pupils to choose their holidays.

Each year, she sits down with Year 7 pupils at Willows high, in Cardiff, and examines the hard-sell language of travel brochures, helping them to become discerning readers. Mrs Owen also reads through job adverts and newspaper articles, highlighting bias and emotive language.

She is the basic-skills co-ordinator at the inner-city comprehensive and for six years, has followed similar methods to those recommended this week by Estyn, the Welsh inspectorate.

"We ask pupils how many times they've had to read something over a week," she said. "They talk about road signs, danger signs and the TV guide. We have to sell the idea that what they're learning is useful and relevant."

A third of Willows pupils have special needs, and 42 per cent are eligible for free meals. Head-teacher Mal Davies, said: "Pupils here don't have a rich experience of study at home, so they fall behind in the early years.

Even if they are interested in a topic, a lack of language or numeracy skills hinders their progress, holds back their motivation."

Mrs Owen works with each school department, introducing basic-skills practice across the curriculum. "Even if pupils object to learning basic skills, they will happily write a diary for a World War I soldier," she said.

A range of after-school clubs also offer opportunities to develop these skills. Drama activities enhance communication, while sports clubs encourage pupils to think strategically and work as a team. In 1998 only 6 per cent of Willows pupils achieved five A*-C grades at GCSE. Last year, 29 per cent reached the same level.

And pupils recognise the value of the skills they are learning. Chlo Rogers, 13, said: "There's so much knowledge in reading. If you couldn't read, you'd only have other people telling you stuff, instead of finding it out for yourself. It would just be horrible."

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