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More literacy, fewer lawyers

Roy Blatchford on this week's launch of Reading is Fundamental, a mission to bring families and books together. Ours is a culture of blame, imported from across the Atlantic. We are wallowing in a despond of fault and litigation. Take the case of the police in an American city who hired a bus - and filmed what happened next. At a pre-arranged moment, a car was driven gently into it. Instantly, passing pedestrians rushed to board. What they were after was compensation. They wanted it to look as if they were on the bus when the crash happened - and thus able to claim all manner of post traumatic stress disorders.

Last month, a woman in New Mexico successfully sued McDonald's for 1.2 million dollars after her hand was scalded by a cup of coffee. At home, a thirteen-year-old has sued her own father following a cycling accident; and a recent conference on Psychiatric Damages Litigation in the Emergency Services included a workshop entitled "When is the rescue over and what is a claim worth?" This mad litany of litigation continues daily: in doctors' surgeries and hospital wards, social services departments, headteachers' offices, restaurants and sports halls.

In a world of hyper-sensitive health and safety regulations we seem unable to accept the workings of chance, fate or even self-inflicted wounds. In the absence of faith, someone has to be blamed. We no longer aspire to our responsibilities. We take refuge in our rights. The lore of pupils in the playground - "It wasn't me, sir, it was him" - is now firmly part of the national psyche.

Yet let us not forget that the efficacy of our public services depends on an ethic of public service. Blaming our teachers, doctors and social workers is simply intent on destroying their personal and professional goodwill.

In education in particular, 1996 has been witness to a barrage of crude, headline-grabbing soundbites from politicians of all colours: polarised, destructive and blighted by short-termism. Nowhere is the culture of blame more clearly focused than in the current debate about reading.

Everyone is agreed that there are concerns about reading standards in the United Kingdom. As the demands of society and the workplace become more sophisticated the "literacy gap" - between the levels of literacy of school leavers and the demands of society - has widened. Whether school standards are or are not declining is far from clear; the key point is that standards are not good enough.

The Office for Standards in Education's recent report, The Teaching of Reading in 45 Inner London Primary Schools, contains the following decisive paragraph in its main findings: "The educational progress of these children depends absolutely on the quality of the teaching they receive. They may well not experience much, if any, support at home; they are unlikely to have access to a rich stock of literature. When they experience poor teaching, they are doubly disadvantaged."

The compulsory schooling system has a proper duty to provide the best it can; truly children have only one chance. To meet our National Education and Training Targets means to start young. Improving on a previous best must be the goal of every child, teacher, and school.

Yet at the heart of the OFSTED main findings is the apparent unquestioning acceptance of the poverty of the home in relation to reading. Millions of words of research, from Rutter's "15,000 hours" onward, not to mention plain common sense, tell us that the die is cast young. Where do young children first learn but on a parent's knee, in the bath, in the garden, with the child-minder, with relatives? Is it not in these spaces that the nation needs to invest when it comes to the confident acquisition of reading skills?

If we are to turn around the culture of blaming parents and teachers, our whole social fabric should gear itself to wanting success in the early years.

The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority has set forth desirable outcomes for children on entering compulsory education. At the heart of these is that: "Children enjoy books and handle them carefully, understanding how they are organised. They know that words and pictures carry meaning and that, in English, print is read from left to right and from top to bottom."

These outcomes need to be communicated to every parent at the birth of their child. They are too important to be left to the whims of the nursery voucher. Expectations are everything with youngsters. I believe there is no greater current challenge for society than to do something about the stuttering literacy that is a feature of so many children's lives.

Indeed, social cohesion in inner urban areas hinges on promoting books and reading from birth, particularly with boys. In a real effort to shift a national consensus from one of blame to aspiration, why should we not enable the following: * All ante- and post-natal classes to include sessions on language development and early years reading; * Every child to have, from birth, a "shoebox" they can call their own in which to keep books; * Public and private finance combine to promote "It's good to read"; * Lending libraries of young children's books to be established in every workplace; * Book borrowing and buying to be promoted by government and, crucially, the electronic media; * Employers to be encouraged to release employees to support volunteer reading time with children.

This week, the National Literacy Trust has launched - with major corporate funding from Tate Lyle plc - Reading is Fundamental. Its mission is to counter the climate of blame, and to stimulate the value and values of reading in homes, and in the multitude of social spaces of the l990s, as well as in schools.

Reading is Fundamental will - as its core - provide free books for young people to choose and own; motivate children to read for pleasure; help families to enjoy stories and books together; and create new generations of readers.

Schools can only do so much. Teachers I've worked with for more than two decades have been unstinting in their efforts to produce better readers, but they cannot do everything.

With the politicians' microscope on reading, national targets and international league tables, the time has surely come for us all to unite behind a long-term vision of ourselves as a reading (not simply viewing) nation. We shall not reverse the long tail of low achievers at 16-plus until we do. Let us begin this summer.

Roy Blatchford was headteacher of Bicester Community College, and is now UK director of Reading is Fundamental. He is a member of SCAA Babies and books, Early Years Extra, centre pages

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