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'The best way to start closing the attainment gap between poor kids and their peers? Reading, reading, reading'

If we’re really going to close the gap between poor kids and their richer counterparts, inculcating a love of reading even before they get to primary is the best place to start

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If we’re really going to close the gap between poor kids and their richer counterparts, inculcating a love of reading even before they get to primary is the best place to start

Can we solve the growing attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils?

This a question endlessly asked: vast amounts of effort goes into analysing the problem and just as much rhetoric is wasted on why it isn’t happening. 

Schools have their work cut out if they are to even get close to levelling the playing field, not least of all because of the many issues our pupils bring with them when they start school. Each issue is complex, requiring multiple skillsets and many different professionals.

As complicated as this recipe is, it starts, of course, with preschool. And much of this, in turn, starts with reading.

Foster a love of reading

The schools that I have led have had their share of problems: all schools in deprived areas do. But what could we do when we found out that over 80 per cent of our children at entry to school did not have a single book to share?

What should schools do when their students have no experience of sharing a book, falling in love with the tactile thrill of turning pages or allowing their imaginations to run wild?

To foster a love of reading we first need to ensure pupils have access to books – and to have them read to us. Children need to be surrounded by books and parents supported to show how this is best achieved. Reading for pleasure is the ultimate goal.

We need to get books into homes before children start school and then work with parents to use them appropriately.

But not just at home. Where are the book areas in our shopping centres? Do I see any at the restaurants? Or any of the soft play centres I visit with my grandchildren? Sadly, no. Surely there is an opportunity to develop this love of books.

Build confidence

And what about when the kids finally arrive at school? In my primary, all prizes were books, every class reader was given to the pupil as a gift when finished, every Christmas the children received a book as a present. We created a bookshop – to counter the lack of them in the neighbourhood – where all titles cost £1. This was a loss leader, but it repaid itself a thousand times over.

However, these alone were not enough. Primaries need to do more to get parents into school even before their kids have become pupils – and of course their grandparents. Starting early is the only way to build the confidence in young, inexperienced parents. 

Schools need to be proactive. Go out and grab them – and provide them with books and provide them with their expertise, as well as offering a place where they can share the problems they are experiencing.

Schools need to teach reading to children and encourage parents to begin to enjoy it themselves.

Only then will parents and teachers work together to encourage young children to listen to, enjoy and love books, rather than become hooked on whatever electronic entertainment is available.

Reading is the best way – the only way – to start the journey towards closing the attainment gap.

Colin Harris led a school in a deprived area of Portsmouth for more than two decades. His last two Ofsted reports were "outstanding" across all categories

To read more of Colin's articles, visit his back catalogue

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