Herbert Ammons middle school is a state-funded magnet school in the western suburb of Miami, Florida. The majority of its pupils are either Hispanic or African-American from socially disadvantaged areas. Yet it regularly wins awards for its outstanding teaching and has been rated an "A" school by Florida state for the past four years. It is so popular that it chooses its pupils by lot. Why is it so successful?
Its dynamic headteacher, Irwin Adler, attributes this success to its highly-effective reading programme. This requires every pupil to bring a book to school every morning for a supervised independent reading period in its homeroom class between 8.30 and 9.15. The school library has 15,000 books categorised by suitability for different age groups for its 1,200 pupils. There is a highly skilled librarian who administers the school's use of the Renaissance Learning's accelerated reader program.
This system is now used in nearly 60,000 American schools. It uses online quizzes for some 70,000 texts and books which test the students'
comprehension of the books they have read. Herbert Ammons uses the tests, the results of which are available online to all teachers, to motivate its pupils to read and understand a wide variety of books. Bill Ruane, the New York philanthropist, strongly supports the use of the program, in the 14 Harlem schools which he supports and after a visit to the Number 10 Policy Unit, has given a substantial grant to test the programme in 14 London primary and secondary schools. These schools include Lilian Bayliss, the Phoenix and John Kelly girls' technology college.
The test is being evaluated by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER). Early results are encouraging. Kathy Heaps, headteacher of John Kelly girls', says that the books are flying off her library shelves and more books have been purchased to cope with the demand. Pupils find the quizzes fun and read their books more carefully so they can get good scores in the tests.
Independent research confirms that reading is fundamental to a child's academic success. In 2004, the Pisa study, the largest ever international study of reading, found that the single most important prediction of academic success in 37 countries was the amount of time children spent reading.
It is clear from the research that the most powerful way to close the gap in academic performance between socio-economically disadvantaged and advantaged children is: 1 To teach pupils basic reading skills through such effective methods as synthetic phonics.
2 Encourage children to read lots of books.
The first does not work without the second. Reading is fundamental. But essential to learning how to read well and to comprehend is time spent reading books - in both primary and secondary schools. Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, has announced that from 2006 the five A to C at GCSE measure to evaluate a school's performance will be changed to require five A to C grades including maths and English. Many leading schools will find their five A to C scores reduced by as much as half.
An effective way for English schools to ensure that their pupils succeed in English would be to adopt the approach used so successfully by Herbert Ammons's school and many thousands of other schools. But use of the accelerated reader tests by themselves will not transform reading skills.
They must be backed up by good libraries, librarians and supervised independent reading classes.
Further, teaching children to love books and to enjoy reading is also the responsibility of parents. Renaissance Learning has published a number of guides for parents to help their children both to improve their reading skills and to succeed at school. These are available on the website shown below.
Government can also do more to help schools to identify which children need help to improve their reading skills. Despite substantial progress having been made in recent years through such initiatives as the National Literacy Strategy, almost a quarter of our 11-year-olds do not achieve the required standard in the key stage 2 English test. Yet the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority still does not ensure that KS2 results are communicated to secondary schools in an effective and timely way. Many specialist schools as a result administer their own Richmond or London reading tests to incoming 11-year-olds. Why can't secondary schools be given the unique computer number of the 11-year-olds who have been offered a place at their schools so they can access the data themselves? The Office for Standards in Education has also indicated that schools will not be penalised if they allocate more of their timetable to independent supervised reading.
As the former education secretary David Blunkett said, a child who can't read, can't learn. All of us - teachers, parents, officials and ministers - must do the maximum possible to ensure that the standard of literacy of our young people improves.
Sir Cyril Taylor is chair of the Specialist Schools Trust. Renaissance Learning is at www.renlearn.com