A kick in the teeth for voluntary effort

Hilary Nicolle

In January 1995, the London borough of Islington local education authority launched a major literacy project costing Pounds 1 million over four years, with the aim of ensuring the highest possible standards of literacy among all Islington pupils.

Islington's London Reading Test results consistently place Islington primary pupils at around the national average. In 1995, the mean standard score for Islington pupils was 100.4, where 100 represents the nationally standardised mean. I believe that this is a commendable achievement in terms of inner-city primary schools. Yet we know that we have an uneven distribution curve and that we need to do better for the lower achievers.

There is no doubt that some children arrive in our secondary schools with insufficiently high standards of literacy to profit immediately, and with enjoyment, from the secondary curriculum. This is not just a problem of the inner city. In Islington, we have nevertheless determined to do something about it.

The slogan for our project is 99 by '99. Our aim is to ensure that all Islington 11-year-olds (or at least 99 per cent of them) are competent readers by the year 1999. We have already embraced Reading Recovery which has had a significant impact on those pupils fortunate enough to benefit from it. Our aim is now to spread the good practice of Reading Recovery into every Islington primary classroom in all year groups. Too often, the teaching of reading is seen as the province of the infant classroom only. Teaching reading and extending pupils' higher order reading skills are tasks for all primary teachers, indeed some would argue, secondary teachers too. We have thus seconded a primary headteacher and two highly skilled literacy tutors to run a programme with rigorous targets.

We have embarked on a huge programme of in-service training for teachers and are relaunching work with parents and other adult volunteers.

In February 1995, we were therefore delighted to be invited by Her Majesty's Inspectorate to participate with two other inner-city boroughs, Tower Hamlets and Southwark, in a collaborative HMILEA Reading Survey, which would seek to establish which strategies, in teaching reading to inner-city pupils, were particularly effective. HMI knew that we had taken part in Reading Recovery, had a strong interest in literacy standards in the inner city, and would thus be likely to be interested in being involved in the exercise.

Over the next five months, a joint three LEAHMI steering group met to plan the project. All aspects of it have been jointly agreed. The survey will be conducted by joint visits of one HMI and one LEA Inspector to each of the 45 schools (15 in each borough) chosen to participate. Substantial LEA resource is being invested in the project, amounting in Islington's case to 25 inspector days, a considerable commitment on the part of schools, as well as not inconsiderable senior officer time and, indeed, some of my own.

You will understand our dismay, therefore, when we learned that the Prime Minister had announced in his Birmingham speech that "OFSTED will, this autumn, be inspecting the teaching of reading in the three boroughs which get some of the poorest results at the end of compulsory schooling". This careful statement did not mention any LEA by name, but was supplemented by concurrent press briefing which named the three LEAs and gave the clear impression that a hit squad of HMI was targeting the three boroughs because their reading standards were particularly poor. No mention was made of the voluntary and collaborative nature of the exercise; no mention of the good practice being observed; no mention of LEA input or co-operation; no mention of schools' co-operation; no mention of the extensive work in literacy currently being carried out by the LEAs; no mention indeed of the fact that Islington's reading standards; while definitely capable of improvement, are commendable in many respects.

We shall continue in the project, because we believe that such collaborative ventures are important in our aim of raising standards in the inner city . It is very disheartening, however, when useful, indeed potentially valuable initiatives such as this are subtly misrepresented. It does not seem to me to be in the interests of higher standards of education in this country.

Dr Hilary Nicolle is director of education for Islington

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