Far-sighted scheme to lift reading standards

Rick Barnes

As an inner city junior school we give high priority to teaching reading. And for the different strategies: we've read the book, got the T-shirt, seen the play and are into the musical.

Then, by chance, we came across a factor we'd never thought of - something that could affect the performance of thousands of children nationwide - an eye test. All the children at our school are given a standard test by our local health authority, but it is so basic it does not pick up all the problems such as colour deficiency, light sensitivity, and so on.

During the last Christmas break, an article in our local newspaper featured a colorimeter machine and how it could help dyslexic children. Our head of special needs read this and contacted the optometrist whose work had been written about. More than half our pupils - 54 per cent - are identified as having learning difficulties. We asked if some of our children could be taken to the practice, but instead the optician's boss agreed to her visiting our school.

We sent letters to the parents of these 119 pupils seeking permission for them to have eye tests. One hundred and ten were seen over four days in March - 16 needed glasses with clear lenses. Further tests helped other children with problems like squints. We haven't even begun to investigate the need for coloured lenses, but shall do when funds allow.

Our experience showed that the standard screening process was deficient but, by doing something about it, we have improved the prospects of 16 children who are in a much better position to learn. This term we intend to extend the tests to the rest of our children, and to make it available to all new admissions.

Schools are investing a lot of time and energy into improving reading standards, yet any physical difficulties a child may have are often overlooked - teaching reading is difficult enough without the extra handicap of inadequate eye tests. Clearly this costs money and, at present we have to resolve payment with our own health authority. But I urge colleagues to approach their health and education authorities on this matter. In the meantime, we have 7 per cent of our children better able to read. Now for the other 93 per cent!

Rick Barnes is head of Flying Bull Junior School in Portsmouth, Hampshire

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