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Illiteracy-free zone declared

THE country's second poorest authority has issued a confident pledge to end illiteracy among primary pupils within four years.

Around one in four P7 pupils in West Dunbartonshire currently enters secondary school unable to read well enough to tackle their new subjects and most are still classed as functionally illiterate when they leave school.

That is about to turn around. The authority claims remarkable success with its early intervention programmes and intensive work with pupils in greatest difficulty and promises to eradicate one of the scars on primary education.

Tommy MacKay, the prominent psychologist who has advised the council on its strategy, said: "Six years ago we made a bold declaration that we would end illiteracy within a decade. It was a visionary statement but we are absolutely on track and we will achieve it. By 2007, we believe that West Dunbartonshire schools will be an illiteracy-free zone."

Dr MacKay said the vision was based on two simple ideas. The first is to slash the number of failing readers by a comprehensive intervention programme up to P2.

The second is to tackle every single failing reader at the top end of primary through the Toe by Toe scheme, using parents, volunteers and classroom assistants to work with pupils individually for 20 minutes a day.

Dr MacKay said: "This scheme can achieve excellent results and it is not dependent on teachers. This research brings the community into a central role in supporting schools to help children learn."

At the start of the second phase of the initiative, staff have raised the reading ages of their 100 poorest P7 readers by an average of one year and two months in under six months. Almost one in five showed gains of two years and more.

All 35 primaries were asked to identify P7 children with significant reading difficulties and 104 poor readers with an average reading age of eight years were selected for intensive tuition.

Dr MacKay said programmes such as Reading Recovery were expensive, required high levels of training and did not always pay off in the poorest areas.

Toe by Toe was "a cheap and effective alternative and involves minimal training".

Dr MacKay accepts some children - just under one in five - will still need extra support. He also acknowledges that some children with speech difficulties, those at the severe end of the dyslexia spectrum or those who struggle with basic life skills, may not achieve the target of functional literacy, defined as a reading age at or above nine years and six months.

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