A little bit of Kiwi magic

12th September 1997 at 01:00
It was the drive of two New Zealanders working here that led to Britain importing the literacy hour. Mark Jackson reports

When Tracy Sutherland started work as a supply teacher at a Westminster primary school, she taught her class to read so effectively that the head was delighted when she applied for a full-time job. The cornerstone of her teaching technique - a structured literacy hour - is now being pressed by the Government on all English and Welsh schools.

Over the past four years, Tracy's way of teaching literacy has been copied by teachers from most of the other primary schools in her London borough and has spread to classrooms as far afield as Jersey. The formula for the structured literacy hour being developed by the National Literacy Project is largely based on the same model. And it may well become the basis for a new way of teaching maths.

Researchers at the University of London Institute of Education say that the average reading age of reception class children in the Westminster schools following Tracy's example is five months ahead of their chronological age. Headteachers are finding that the literacy teaching is inspiring improvements in classroom practice generally. It sounds like the tinsel-land tale of an unsung pedagogic genius, the humble classroom practitioner who hits on the cook-it-right recipe for which the nation's teachers and politicians have been waiting. But it wasn't like that, as Tracy Sutherland would be the first to acknowledge.

The structured literacy hour, like Tracy Sutherland, comes from New Zealand. The hour-long planned reading lesson, a prescribed sequence of skilled teaching activities, is standard primary practice there; and Tracy, arriving in London in the early Nineties, brought it with her.

That it came to be the model first for Westminster and then for other authorities is due to a combination of circumstances: Tracy's presence in a school where the head backed her methods, the messianic zeal of an another expatriate New Zealander, and another New Zealand import, the Reading Recovery scheme.

Reading Recovery was one of the last government's transient enthusiasms: a programme of skilled one-to-one tuition for children seriously behind in reading. It had been developed in New Zealand as a supplementary measure for the minority of pupils were being left further and further behind when structured literacy lessons raised expectations and achievements for their peers.

The Reading Recovery experts from New Zealand invited to launch the programme in the early 90s may have had their private doubts about the logic of targeting a minority while ignoring the general level of literacy in Britain's schools. They were certainly not prepared to start telling the Brits how to run their classes. But among the first batch of tutors trained in 1992 at London's Institute of Education by Professor Marie Clay, on whose work the structured hour and reading recovery are based, was a fellow New Zealander with rather less reticence. Shirley Bickler, a member of Westminster's tiny learning support team, has worked in school psychology services around the world and is better placed than most to judge the effectiveness of teaching methods.

In 1992 the debate between the back-to-phonics traditionalists and those who believed that children learned best by being immersed in real books was at its height. Shirley Bickler had no time for either faction. She argued for the properly focused application of a range of teaching skills to ensure that children would learn to recognise and understand text in the context of its use. Real books yes, phonics yes; but with nothing left to chance, and teacher and children working all the time to a purposeful plan.

What Britain's schools needed, Shirley Bickler felt, was New Zealand's structured literacy hour. She had first learned about it in Kenya from a British adviser, but there was little sign in Britain that the education system was moving in that direction, or was waiting to be told how to do so by an opinionated reading recovery tutor.

Enter Tracy Sutherland. Shirley Bickler became aware of her existence when Tracy Sutherland's head at Wilberforce primary school, which serves one of London's most deprived areas, sent her on Westminster's first Reading Recovery teachers' course. To Shirley Bickler's delight, she discovered that the young New Zealander was using the literacy hour structure as a daily routine.

"She had no idea she was doing anything special," Shirley Bickler recalls. "This was what she had been trained to do and it was the only way to teach what she knew."

It was what Bickler needed - a chance to demonstrate that New Zealand's mainstream approach to literacy was at least as relevant to improving primary achievement as Reading Recovery. Tracy could be used to show teachers and their heads what structured teaching could do, and how to do it. The message would be spread from Wilberforce across the borough's schools and then to the nation.

On the face of it the plan was little more than a flight of fancy. Westminster in 1993 was doing its best to become Britain's most ineffectual education authority. Lady Shirley Porter and her right-wing confederates had fired the inspectorate and most of the other education department professionals, and no longer bothered to talk with the borough's heads. It seemed inconceivable that Westminster could be the springboard for a major reform in classroom practice.

But, with the co-operation of Angela Piddock, the headteacher at Wilberforce and the quiet approval of Bill Laar, then Westminster's chief inspector and the beleaguered lone survivor of its inspectorate, Shirley Bickler embarked on the project she called LIFT - the Literacy Initiative From Teachers.

She had neither official backing nor a specific budget to launch LIFT, but she was not prepared to compromise on the literacy hour structure. The lack of resources for a team-training programme was turned to an advantage: Tracy's fellow teachers on the Reading Recovery course would learn how to deliver the literacy hour by observing her demonstration lessons.

The first year, 1993, was spent preparing materials and in enlisting two more New Zealand-trained Reading Recovery teachers in the demonstration lessons. Tracy Sutherland and her colleagues ran twilight in-service sessions in their schools for the other Reading Recovery teachers, and by the following year the programme was well under way. Shirley Bickler was able to persuade three of the borough's heads to pay for a full-time project leader, and she was able to offer grants towards the cost of the resources LIFT teaching required - around Pounds 3,000 a school.

The more education-friendly politicians who had by now replaced the Shirley Porter faction woke up to find that advisers and literacy specialists from all over the country were making the pilgrimage to Wilberforce and its sister demonstrations schools. They agreed to fund the programme for two further years, and appear about to extend it again.

Kitty Owtram, a former colleague of Shirley Bickler's, says that her achievement in setting up LIFT in a minimalist authority such as Westminster is remarkable. "Only someone like Shirley could have done it. She's a battler, a Savanarola who won't let anything stand in her way. She terrifies people, but education needs her kind."

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