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Million pounds heals reading blight

A project equipping seven-year-olds with executive-style "pocket book" computers is reversing the inner-city reading blight in two of the London boroughs officially savaged for low standards of literacy.

The Government's National Literacy Project and the Labour party's Literacy Task Force are already showing a keen interest in the #163;1 million scheme which, crucially, has produced startling improvements irrespective of children's social background.

The scheme, which operates in three of the poorest boroughs in the country - Newham, Tower Hamlets and Southwark - has seen a 700 per cent jump in the number of schools hitting the national reading average.

All 600 pupils in the Docklands Learning Acceleration Project, run by the National Literacy Association, are making progress at close to national average levels, despite the low expectations habitually associated with inner- city areas.

Professor David Reynolds, one of the academics who assessed the project and a member of Labour's task force on reading, has described the results as "phenomenal".

The Docklands project has also, significantly, used a regime of "target-setting", the Government-backed approach to helping schools raise their standards according to national norms.

This is all welcome news for the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, which this week attacked the "unacceptable differences" between schools with similar pupil intakes.

The authority's comments followed claims by the Social Market Foundation that seven-year-olds in some schools are three years behind their peers in the same town.

SCAA will be producing a national scheme of appropriate "targets" later this year which, it has claimed, will prevent poor schools hiding behind the excuse of social disadvantage.

Tower Hamlets and Southwark, along with Islington, were the subject of last year's damning report on reading standards by the Office for Standards in Education.

The project is organised by the National Literacy Association - a long-standing lobby group backed by the teaching unions, the Campaign for State Education and the British Dyslexia Association. The NLA says that this approach, which uses the motivational power of sophisticated technology along with the involvement of parents and local libraries, proves that the low expectations attacked by OFSTED can and should be raised.

The scheme covers 600 pupils in 15 schools and is simply designed to increase the amount of children's reading and writing. Pupils were all equipped with Acorn Pocket Book computers - which are modified versions of the Psion Organiser - and encouraged to work at home as well as at school. None of the #163;200 Pocket Books has been stolen.

In some schools 90 per cent of parents have attended training days to help them use the computers. The project has also increased the use of libraries: one Southwark librarian wrote, "They borrow more complicated and quite 'wordy' books now, compared to the previous school year #201; only five children in the whole class do not belong to the library."

"The rates of progress for the children in the scheme are very impressive indeed," said Professor Reynolds from the University of Newcastle. "Progress in reading is as good for disadvantaged children as it is for the others."

The independent assessors found that only one out of 15 schools reached national average reading levels in 1995. By 1996 this had risen to seven schools.

The pupils had also made less than average progress. In 1995, they were gaining only eight months reading age for every 12 months that passed. This would have them two years behind at secondary school. By 1996, however, they had all caught up: the average progress was 11.5 months reading age in 12 months of real time.

The leader of the assessment team, Dr David Scott from London's Institute of Education, warned that the nature of this development needs more analysis, but it is significant. "The thing about inner-city pupils is that they start off at a lower base of attainment than average and then go on to make less progress. That's what's accepted. Here they are keeping up with the normal rates of progress."

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