A few months ago, after being invited to speak at the Wales Education 2000 conference, I confidently jotted down two questions I wanted my talk to answer: how can Wales become a highly literate and successful nation, and whose responsibility is it to ensure high standards of literacy in Wales? While it strikes me that I have probably bitten off more than I can chew, as the conference draws nearer I still believe these are the very issues that need to be discussed and (hopefully) answered.
We must start by finding out how well Wales is doing with regard to literacy skills. According to the most recent annual report of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector in Wales, "in primary schools overall standards in literacy in English and Welsh are satisfactory or better in nearly 95 per cent of schools".
The report also says that "standards of achievement in all areas of literacy are satisfactory or better in nearly 90 per cent of secondary schools". In national curriculum assessments at all key stages, a higher percentage of pupils than last year achieved the expected levels in Welsh and English.
This all sounds just fine. Wales seems on course to achieving government targets. So what's the problem?
If we juxtapose the above information with the results of recent surveys, the issue becomes clearer. It is claimed that the UK just scraped into the top 10 of countries where book sales are high and where a significant proportion of the population claims to have read a book during the past fortnight. Can we deduce from this that schools are making readers of us as children, but that as adults we resist developing our literacy skills further?
Is it the individual's responsibility to develop his or her literacy, or is it up to communities to make literacy development a focus for activity? If so, how can we do that?
Also, some people will ask if this only means books. It's a good point. Let me refer back for a moment to the National Year of Reading last year. It was a government initiative aimed at raising the profile of reading and literacy and to encourage higher standards throughout the UK. It was a great success in Wales, mainly because so many individuals, organisations and commuities became involved in promoting reading and because the main messages emphasised that reading is for everyone and that it doesn't matter what you read. Reading should be enjoyable as well as valuable. It should give the reader pleasure as well as power, and that means it doesn't matter whether it's a newspaper at breakfast time, a magazine at the dentist's, light fiction in the bath, poetry in bed, or one of the classics at a desk.
Reading makes thinkers of us, and reading makes us creative. It cultivates our imagination and liberates out minds. The more thought-provoking the material we choose is, the more we think: and the more we think, the more civilising the reading process becomes. This seems to suggest that to become a highly-literate nation, we need to read as much as possible, from as wide a range of materials as we can. As Thomas Carlyle said: "All that mankind has done, thought, gained or been: it is all lying in magic preservation in the pages of books."
Schools and literacy development hold the key to making us a highly-literate nation. All the evidence points to the fact that, in general, schools succeed in teaching youngsters to read, and that standards in literacy are improving year on year in Wales.
This is no mean achievement. Schools certainly introduce pupils to "good books", and many, myself included, are eternally indebted to them for the treasures they bestowed on us.
Others, however, who may have attended the same schools, hardly ever read or pick up a book. This is our starting-point for the conference: how can schools and other agencies (because it certainly isn't just the schools' responsibility) make readers of those who don't (not can't) read? As Mark Twain wrote: "The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them."
This is the crux of the matter, the really big question - and the answer could make a huge contribution to making Wales a highly-literate and successful nation. Why not come to the conference and help us find the answer?
Rhiannon Lloyd is HM Inspector of schools in Wales and was the Welsh co-ordinator of the National Year of Reading in 1998-99. She will deliver The TES lecture, Literacy - skills for life in school and community on Friday, July 14 at noon. She is also speaking on Thursday, July 13 at 11am.