There is no nationalofficial measure of how many children are going through the school system without acquiring basic literacy skills but, using what information is available, a good estimate would be that in Scotland 18.5% leave primary school without being functionally literate - some 13,000 youngsters a year at current population levels. However, there is considerable local variation with a range of between 10% and 26% correlating to different levels of socio-economic disadvantage.
Primary and early secondary national test scores are another source of evidence and, whilst these are not immune to question, when aggregated to local authority level, some significance can be attached to them. In relation to both reading and writing, the proportion of children failing to achieve the expected standards, as defined in the 5 - 14 programme, varies enormously. For example, by the age of 14, the percentage of children not achieving level E in reading in 2008 exceeded 20% in two authorities, ranged between 10% and 19% in six others, and was reported as 0% in 14 authorities, although it is not clear what this "0%" means. Figures relating to writing were less satisfactory. Only in 3 areas were all children said to have achieved the expected standard while, in 2 areas, half the children did not and, in a further 6, at least 30% fell below the expected level.
Levels of success in national tests broadly follow socio-economic factors with poorer areas faring badly, although a small number of partial exceptions is evident. However, many youngsters do not overcome their lack of literacy skill in secondary school and, taking the more objective SQA performance of general educational success as an indicator of literacy standards, then exceptions disappear and achievement follows social circumstances to an alarming degree.
There are no official national statistics on literacy levels for secondary school leavers, and those that exist are hard to interpret, but an indication of the scale and impact of the problem across the United Kingdom can be found in statistics on adult literacy presented by the National Literacy Trust1. In England, the 2003 "Skills for Life" survey found that 5.2 million adults (or 16% of the 16-65 population) had literacy levels at or below `Entry Level 3', the standard expected of an 11 year old child. The figure for Wales was higher at 25%. No comparable figures are given for Scotland; however a 2001 report by the Scottish Executive indicated that 23% of the adult population may have low literacy and numeracy skills.
The Commission was interested to know how reading standards in Scotland compare with other countries but found this surprisingly difficult to establish. There is no answer that can be regarded as truly authoritative.
There are currently two major international surveys that cover standards in literacy -Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). Both have the merit of being repeated at regular intervals but the findings are open to question, with the tests more attuned to the cultures of some countries than others. However, these international comparisons do give valuable information and at least an indication of standards of performance.
Whilst Scotland did well in both the 2000 and 2003 PISA studies, Scottish performance in the 2006 study was less encouraging and was not much above the average (499 points against an average of 492). Five countries (Canada, Finland, Ireland, Korea and New Zealand) did better and a further 14 (including England) performed at much the same level.
The PIRLS study showed a similar decline; in 2006 Scotland was ranked 26thout of 45, compared with 14thin the previous study. The international evidence, despite problems of interpretation arising from the definition of literacy and the attainment measures used, does not support the idea that Scotland is a world leader. Furthermore, there is a worrying suggestion in both PISA and PIRLS that other countries may be progressing faster than Scotland.
The Impact of Poor Literacy
This section sets out the impact of poor literacy on individuals and society, drawing upon the findings of a CBI report into the impact of low readingwriting skills.
Poor literacy levels matter because they have an impact both on individuals and on society. A very powerful report by the National Literacy Trust (September 2008), which pulls together existing research about the relationship between literacy and five areas of life: economic status, aspirations, family life, health and civiccultural engagement, highlights not just the impact of socio-economic factors on low literacy levels but also how those low literacy levels, in turn, affect life chances and further exclude people from participating in society2.
The scope and seriousness of these problems is indicated further by figures from the Office of National Statistics which show that in the 50-65 age group, 31% of males and 40% of females have a literacy standard normally achieved by the end of early primary years. Moreover, a Scottish Executive report in 2001 found that some 800,000 adults, of whom 500,000 were in work, had significant literacy problems, whilst a subsequent report in 20083revealed that 39% of men and 36% of women of working age had literacy abilities at a level that was likely to impact on their employment and life chances.
The view from employers is shown in a CBI survey on the impact of illiteracypoor readingwriting skills in the work place4. This gave evidence (see below) that the major concern about literacy, shared by 72% of respondents, was the quality of written English - constructing properly spelt sentences with accurate grammar. Moreover, this concern applied to graduates as well as to school leavers.
Leading areas of concern.
|Area of concern||% of respondents|
|Constructing properly spelt, grammatically correct writing||72|
|More complex literacy tasks||46|
|Understanding oral communication and articulating a clear response||39|
|Reading and understanding basic texts||32|
It is clear that many of the concerns identified relate to higher levels of skill than basic decoding. This accords with the Commission's opinion that literacy is a continuum with significant points relating to key skill levels at different stages along it. This view does not minimise the importance of ensuring that all children attain basic literacy skills as timeously as possible, but it does mean that they should not be left at this level. It is a purpose of education to move youngsters as far along the continuum as possible.
Defining Basic Literacy
This section defines a level of `basic literacy' for the purposes of the report, bearing in mind that there is no official definition of literacy and recognising that thesimpleprocess of decoding is insufficient by itself.
The Commission spent some time discussing what constituted a basic level of literacy and what this enabled someone to do. Although the Scottish Government is keen to emphasise that literacy is central to Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) and that every teacher is to become a teacher of literacy, there is no official definition. In 2008, in answer to a Parliamentary Question, the Minister for Schools and Skills confirmed that "The Scottish Government does not have a definition of functional literacy".
In fact, literacy is a very complex concept, involving, at a more advanced level, a range of higher order skills such as critical thinking, creative writing, appraising style or detecting bias, and this complex view -that literacy is a continuum, covering advanced skills as well as basic -is the one laid out in the CfEExperiences and Outcomes.At its most basic level, literacy crucially involves competence in readingdecoding (defined as the process of deriving meaning from systematised graphic shapes) and in writing. The realisation that text conveys meaning is itself an important skill and one that only has to be learnt once. However, basic skills of decoding and writing are, on their own, not sufficient to enable someone to function in adult society and the Commission felt that it was this ability (to function in an adult society) that should be used to define "basic literacy". In West Dunbartonshire, the age standard identified as delivering this was 9 years 6 months which is illustrated in the reading example below.
Text of Level 4 reading passage
Jan buckled on her diving belt of metal weights and dropped from the launch. Skipper Kells supervised her air-hose to prevent tangling. Leo, following the bubbles, guided the dinghy above the diver as she searched the mysterious underwater world.
Jan surfaced frequently, clutching crayfish. The required number of specimens was almost obtained when the grey nurse shark advanced directly towards her. Jan retreated cautiously without signalling for assistance. The creature brushed by, ignoring her, as baby sharks emerged from some rocky grooves. Their welfare was more important to the shark than the diver's now motionless figure.5
Anyone mastering this stage should be able to read the passage aloud, following its meaning with few errors in accuracy. It equates to a midpoint between levels C and D in the 5-14 programme and the beginning of stage 2 in Curriculum for Excellence. It provides an adequate level of literacy to start engaging with the secondary school curriculum, complete a basic form, read a tabloid newspaper and function at a basic level in society; it is an important staging post on the literacy continuum. However, it would not allow a youngster to complete the secondary curriculum or function at a higher level in society and should not be regarded as the end point. (For comparable examples of writing, see footnote6.)
Social and Economic Disadvantage
These paragraphs define socio-economic disadvantage as the most important cause of correctable poor literacy and describes the negative effects that this has on thelifechances and achievement of children.
In order to find an appropriate solution to the problem of poor literacy levels, it is necessary to look at causes. The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that, whilst other factors have a modest impact, the most important cause of correctable poor literacy is socio-economic disadvantage. Figures given earlier in the report show that, whether the measure used is National Test scores or the more objective SQA results, children in less affluent areas tend to be less successful. While individuals may defy this trend, no school in a deprived neighbourhood is able to record a similar level of success to that achieved by almost all schools in the most affluent areas. It is evident that socio-economic circumstances continue to outweigh other factors such as quality of teaching, a point made forcibly by the OECD 2007 reportQuality and Equity of Schooling in Scotland -"Not all schools work equally well in Scotland. But the gaps between them are far less important than differences between students. In Scotland,who you areis far more important thanwhat school you attend".
Material disadvantage can have a simple and direct effect on educational opportunity. Housing is more likely to be crowded with no quiet place for study. Families are often unable to afford the trips and other experiences that enrich the developing mind. Lack of money can be an important factor in deciding whether a child has to leave school at 16 or is able to continue further. However, less obvious effects of socio-economic circumstances are even more influential and, as is now widely recognised, cumulative. The same groups suffer from poorer health, less adequate housing, exposure to crime and violence and lower chances of educational success. These disadvantages are not merely correlated, they are causally related. The Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, Dr. Harry Burns, has recently presented research which offers persuasive arguments that a child's whole circumstances affect life-chances in a way that is generally decisive.
Medical evidence suggests that disadvantage has a physiological impact on the human body that not only makes children more liable to disease and early death but also inhibits their brain development and makes them less able to learn. It is widely recognised that children who experience chaotic family circumstances or who do not receive the appropriate responses to cries of discomfort or smiles of happiness experience problems in their development. If these are not redressed early, they may have lasting consequences because the first few years of a child's life are when many key stages in brain development happen. Such children are not only likely to make a poor start in education but also rapidly fall further behind. Moreover, the disadvantage is generally long-lasting, impairing their capacity to make progress at later stages.
Disadvantage in this extreme form is illustrated by evidence from Glasgow. In one P67 class, 21 out of 24 children had faced severe problems in their lives including drugalcohol abuse by a parent, family death and violence. More generally, some children arrive at nursery at the age of three or even four with barely any language and poorly developed social and motor skills. It is self-evident that such children lack the prior experiences that would equip them to learn.
A particularly vulnerable group are children looked after by local authorities, both in children's homes and in their own homes. The overall number has doubled in most local authorities over the past four years, largely because of social problems such as parental drugalcohol abuse and domestic violence. Often, the focus on education takes second place to their more immediate social and behavioural needs. Many, through no fault of their own, have become disengaged from mainstream schooling, suffer from complex needs and are well known to a variety of different support services, such as social work.
However, the effects of disadvantage are more widespread than even these examples might suggest. The statistical evidence cited earlier indicates clearly that, even if children have supportive and loving families, socio-economic disadvantage will severely reduce their likelihood of success.
The reasons for this have received less attention than they merit. However, it seems clear that the awareness of living at a low point in a social hierarchy is itself very damaging. It is liable to reduce self-esteem, morale and motivation. Meanwhile, being excluded from the culture and discourse of more privileged groups may reduce competence in activities that are socially and educationally valued. There is again medical evidence that such exclusion increases stress and precipitates a number of potentially damaging physiological responses.
Furthermore, so pervasive is the effect of disadvantage that it tends to subsume other factors. In recent years girls have out-performed boys in most aspects of school work (although not in later success in life). Theories have been developed indicating that sedentary literacy-based activities better suit girls' preferred styles of learning. Although there is truth in such views, it is even more significant that changes in society have left traditional male manual employment highly marginalised. The result is a merging of gender-related factors with the more powerful issue of disadvantage. Such a view is supported by a variety of evidence, including from the Clackmannanshire project (see Page 13et seq), that gender differences can be substantially reduced or even eliminated by well-conceived and systematic policies combined with sound teaching.
Experiences of the Past
This section points out that there has been no `golden age' of literacy and to exemplify this draws on the school experiences of adults presently engaged in adultliteracyschemes.
There is no evidence to suggest that there has ever been some literacy "golden age" and figures from the Office of National Statistics reveal higher levels of poor literacy among the 50-65 age group than the 16-24 age group. The Commission itself considered evidence from adults who were participating in adult literacy and numeracy schemes. Personal reflections by this group identified the following as impediments to learning:
- Missing school - often because of problems at home - resulted in learning gaps that were hard to make up. Youngsters then lost confidence in their ability to learn.
- Learning difficulties that were not identified early enough
- A lack of appropriate and sustained help as and when it was needed
- Their own behaviour e.g. being easily distracted andor truanting
- Parents who did not push them to learnstay on task
- A learning-support curriculum that did not match the classroom curriculum
- Confidence undermined by being removed from the class (and separated from friends) for learning-support.
It is noteworthy that this group identified personal failure - either their own or others in terms of the lack of support they received - as the cause of their problem and appeared to be largely unaware of systemic problems arising from their social and economic circumstances.
English as an Additional Language (EAL)
This section does not claim EAL to be a factor in poor literacy but identifies findings from a report on EAL teaching that identified the issues associated withhelpingchildren with poorly-developed English language skills and the importance of wider community support.
The Commission took time to consider English as an Additional Language (EAL). It is not itself a factor in poor literacy -indeed a number of Glasgow schools with a high percentage of asylum seeker or recently arrived children for whom English is not their first language are out-performing other local schools. However, a report on EAL teaching provided some very instructive insight into both the problems of helping youngsters with poorly-developed English language skills and the importance of community support.
It is clear that the concept of decoding is a bit like riding a bike -once a youngster has learnt that reading a written script is possible, thisawarenesscan be transferred from language to language even when the "graphic shapes" used are quite different e.g. from Chinese to English.
It is necessary for someone to have language to think in before they can read. In the EAL setting this means that it is more important for parents to develop a child's use of their own language than teach himher English, if the parents' own English language is limited. Moreover, there is a need to overcome potential difficulties arising from a mismatch between the cultures of the learners (whether EAL or those from socio-economically disadvantaged areas) and the education they receive.
The Role of Testing
This section identifies the Commission's view on testing as having two purposes; to certify student progress and to identify struggling schoolchildren.
The Commission considered the current focus on testing for literacy and a proposal withinCurriculum for Excellencethat all youngsters should acquire a formal qualification, establishing their literacy level, in their third year of secondary school. For its part, the Commission recognised the value and use of testing and saw it as having two particular purposes - certification and diagnosis. Testing highlights the importance of the area to be tested - in this case, literacy. It gives evidence of standards to employers and those in more advanced levels of education. It provides baseline data which are useful for establishing what is happening in Scotland and for showing how achievement has changed over time. It is also important as a means of holding those responsible for education to account for what they deliver.
However, the Commission sees that a central purpose of testing is to provide diagnostic information about students who are struggling, and for working out what steps should be taken to help them progress. The methodology and timing of such tests are crucial for identifying the scale of literacy difficulties. Such tests do not have to be applied to all youngsters but can be used in an increasingly focused way to help those who have been identified as having problems.
Improving Literacy - the Evidence
i) Addressing the Consequences of Social and Economic Disadvantage
At this point, the report identifies the need to begin addressing socio-economic disadvantage from an early-age and also draws on evidence from local government in Italy.
The medical evidence on the impact of very early experience on brain development and the consequences of disadvantage would indicate that redress has to begin from birth or, indeed, before. The quality of antenatal care and the behaviour of women during pregnancy have far-reaching consequences for children but do not fall within the Commission's remit, which was concerned with the years after birth. However, this should in no way detract from the considerable importance of providing quality services in the earliest years.
In terms of the very young, the best developed services are to be found in northern Italy, particularly in thosecommune7that have been influenced by the pioneering work in Reggio Emilia over a period of more than forty years. In San Miniato, for example, over 40% of very young children between birth and the age of three receive one of a variety of education and care services, such as attending anidoor nursery for the very young, run by thecommune. A common feature of these services is direct support to parents (including many fathers) to help them feel more confident and competent in supporting their children. San Miniato's services, all paid for through local taxes with means-tested contributions from parents, express the notion of support by the whole community for families in the task of raising children.
Thus, building family capacity has to be a central feature of any systematic attempt to redress the cultural disadvantage that some young children otherwise encounter from the outset of formal education. Children coming from homes where conversation centres on ideas and where adults demonstrate by their habits that literacy is valued, arrive at school equipped to benefit from what teachers have to offer. It is as if they already have the outline of a mental jigsaw in place. When the teacher offers a new piece, they can see where it fits; it becomes meaningful and memorable. Unless steps are taken to counteract cultural disadvantage, many other children, particularly those who are looked after by local authorities, will never build their mental jigsaws. New learning will have nowhere to fit in and will be quickly forgotten.
In the UK, increasing understanding of the importance of the early years (together with a desire to give mothers easier access to the labour market) has led to a huge expansion in services for pre-school children. In the late 1990s public money was invested on a massive scale in a variety of public and private nursery provision.
However, these new services were devoted almost entirely to the 3-5 age-group and provision for younger children was very modest. But, by the age of three the most prolific stage of brain development has been completed and a child's environment in terms of the ethos of the family and local community will already have had a significant and lasting effect.
This is not an argument to do nothing because a child's fate is determined by the age of three. Services for the young that directly enrich the experience of children, whilst not a substitute for what the parents can offer, can go a considerable way towards alleviating disadvantage. So, mindful of the evidence on poverty, including much from Glasgow, and of the importance of building support within the child's home and community, the Commission was very interested to learn of the success of nurture groups, an early years' programme that takes youngsters from the most problematic backgrounds and places them in small groups with a specially trained teacher and support staff. The emphasis is on providing care for the children, and on developing their social and emotional skills. The groups work closely with the parents to help them understand how they in turn might better support their children's development. A recent research evaluation of the nurture groups8found not only that they were successful in their original purpose, but that they have also raised the attainment levels of the children involved.
In the very early years, formal education is of no relevance. The important action is to build the preconditions for later learning. Good services for the youngest age group bring together health, care and education in a seamless way. Effective support for potentially disadvantaged children requires a continuity that is currently not offered and a focus on the whole family and the whole process of development. In this way a basis is laid for success in later learning including acquisition of the fundamental learning skill of literacy.
In terms of looked-after children, there are examples of successful practice across the country. For example, in West Lothian, a multi-agency approach has helped to raise achievement by focusing on the educational, social and health needs of the children. For older children, Glasgow's Enhanced Vocational Inclusion Programme (EVIP) has provided looked-after children with an alternative to mainstream schooling. The programme is designed to allow the children and young people the chance to study a vocational qualification while at the same time developing core life skills.
ii) Successful Action -Evidence from School Projects
This section highlights four features of successful literacy schemes adopted after 1997 and also describes further evidence from adult learners.
Within the school context, there is a lot of evidence on how to overcome literacy problems through focused teaching. From its inception, the Commission has attracted a lot of information from individuals and groupsorganisations who have developed successful schemes for teaching literacy. Indeed, in 1997 Scotland itself was as close to a complete commitment to literacy-for-all as it has ever been. TheEarly Years' Initiativewas a national policy that both required and allowed the 32 authorities to develop their own schemes. However, although the scheme was generously funded by central government, only some of the projects were really successful, demonstrating that whilst having the necessary resources for any programme is important, resources alone are not a sufficient guarantee of success. In order to understand how to overcome the problem of poor literacy, it is helpful to look more closely at the key features in those programmes that peer-reviewed research has shown did succeed.
1) National Leadership
Successive Governments have made literacy a priority and provided funding but there has been a lack of consistency and constancy. To be successful, a zero-tolerance literacy policy has to be adopted for the long term. However, whilst leadership from the top is important,this has to be balanced by the essential ingredients of local ownership, differentiation and commitment. There needs to be commitment at every level from First Minister, through Council leaders, educational directorate, head teachers and all parties including teachers, volunteers, parents and pupils. The West Dunbartonshire project, which has lasted 12 years to date, was supported by such commitment so that it survived several changes of Director of Education, three changes of the education officer responsible for the project, three changes of project leader, 90% change of staff in the specialist early intervention team and several changes of Council Leader, accompanied at times by changes in the political balance of power in the Council.
2) Starting Early with Formal Literacy
In order to address the problems that youngsters bring to school, whether in terms of social disadvantage or learning difficulties, it is necessary to start literacy programmes from a very early age. This was true of successfulEarly Years' Initiativeprojects. In Clackmannanshire, the Synthetic Phonics experiment began with a cohort of children at the P1 level and followed them through the course of their primary education. In West Dunbartonshire, children were targeted from pre-school age and support has continued into the secondary stage. A recently completed pilot writing project in North Lanarkshire similarly focused on children in the early years of primary school.
In line with comments from some adult returners, that they had addressed their own literacy problems when faced with helping their children, the Commission noted the impact (sometimes unexpected) that the literacy initiatives had on the parents of children involved. For example, there were cases in West Dunbartonshire where parents at parents' evenings confided to teachers that they had reading difficulties. Education officials in North Lanarkshire also reported similar situations, and in both cases the authorities in question were able to provide advice and direct parents to support structures. Overcoming poor literacy cannot be left solely to schools. Success also depends on support and commitment from the home and community. Picking up on this aspect, a new and as yet unreviewed project in Glasgow places an emphasis on literacy across generations in a continuum from early-years to the workplace and the wider community.
3) Teaching Approaches - Careful Monitoring and Continuous Professional Development (CPD)
All successful schemes have relied heavily on synthetic phonics but have used a variety of approaches to ensure that the necessary measures of literacy were available at the right time for children experiencing difficulties. The requirement to switch approaches as appropriate means it is necessary and important to use diagnostic tests to identify the exact position of every child vulnerable to reading failure, and to monitor the progress of all children.
It also means that good CPD is an essential element of any successful programme, as it develops teachers' skills, puts the teacher in charge and so helps build the necessary commitment at school level. If a project is to maximise its potential, there needs to be evidence of professional buy-in for its aims and objectives at the local level. While government may choose to direct funding to advance a particular vision or strategy, successful projects tend to be those that have been formulated at a local level, giving teachers and education officials maximum input into designing and implementing a project. If teachers are made to feel as though they are supporting a remote reform agenda, then these projects are the most likely to fail.
4) Intervention Strategies
For some youngsters good teaching is not enough. Intensive support is necessary if they are to make progress, and there are a number of reading-recoverysupport schemes that have been developed. However, some of these are dedicated programmes which take the child out of school, often isolate the pupil from hisher peers and are expensive. It is more inclusive and less expensive to run in-school schemes. West Dunbartonshire's project aimed to ensure that no child was left behind, using initiatives such as intensive daily one-to-one work with children and the "Toe By Toe" programme9which intervened with children who were clearly still struggling further up primary school. The Clackmannanshire project similarly provided rigorous pupil monitoring and intervention where required through catch-up groups and homework clubs.
What Needs to be Done -the Views of Adult Learners
The adult returners who identified impediments to their learning were also quite clear about what they felt would have made a difference. It was noteworthy that the steps that they identified as being desirablenecessary matched very closely the steps taken in the school projects that were studied:
- Better identification of learning difficulties
- Early intervention so that youngsters do not fall behind
- Necessary help in terms of more time for explanation, more reinforcing of explanations and more effort by the teacher to ensure that real understanding has taken place
- One-to one help when necessary
- Involving parents and supporting them (A number of the adults reported that they had got involved in literacy programmes to help their own children's learning and that their classes had then helped them understand their children's difficulties.)
- More pressure on youngsters to attend school and to keep on task -youngsters should not be just left to get on with things.
- Motivation -youngsters should be helped to understand why reading matters and their interest encouraged by good reading material at the appropriate level.
- The learning support curriculum should match the regular curriculum so that youngsters can keep in step with their peers.
Moving Beyond Basic Literacy
In this section, the report highlights the need to move children beyond a basic level of literacy in order that they can fully engage with modern society and the workplace.
As indicated earlier, the Commission agreed from the outset that literacy is a continuum that extends beyond basic literacy skills. Different levels of literacy are needed; for example, for undertaking a modern apprenticeship, for most jobs (SCQF level 5) and for Further and Higher Education. In this age of information overload via the Internet, it is important that all youngsters are equipped with analytical skills so that they can understand not just the information that is provided but also its validity. Did the author of the information have a vested interest in persuading the reader of a particular version of the truth? Literacy is also not the sole responsibility of local authorities and schools. Literacy should go beyond the remit of formal education and become embedded across society in order to ensure continuous development.Partnership working, involving the public, private and voluntary sectors, is key if poor literacy across society is to be challenged.
In looking at how youngsters can be helped to move beyond basic literacy, the Commission began by considering the significant number of young people who acquire basic skills of decoding but do not go on to become independent readers. Indeed, in some cases, skills are gradually lost and youngsters become, at best, reluctant and marginally competent readers. Why do some children not progress beyond early literacy skills and what can be done to help them?
On a totally practical level, it is important to ensure that the reading material offered to reluctant readers matches their interests and maturity. On this score,Project X,which has just been launched in England, provides an interesting example. It uses the "playstation approach" to attract boys in particular to reading. A recent parent-led research project in Aberdeen identified the Guinness Book of Records and comics as items that kept children reading. Schools must not be prescriptive in what constitutes suitable reading material and should accept what interests the child whilst trying to move on to more ambitious material.
However, one of the most significant facts to emerge from the evaluation of the Clackmannanshire literacy project related to a loss of impetus somewhere around the middle of primary schooling. Whereas in P1-3 almost all of the traditional differences in attainment between girls and boys and between schools with socially different catchment area disappeared, by P7 socio-economic disadvantage had begun to reassert itself, although overall standards remained higher and gender differences lower than before.
It is reasonable to conclude that, as the element of comprehension becomes more significant than the mechanical skill of decoding, cultural and environmental factors begin to impede the progress of some learners, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. If these children are to build on their early success in the acquisition of basic literacy skills, these factors must be tackled.
Returning to the correlation of educational failure and socio-economic disadvantage, there is no instance in Scotland of a school serving a poor neighbourhood and achieving results comparable to those of schools in the most affluent areas. Moreover, as has already been indicated, a child's early experience of life largely determines the speed and accuracy with which they form fundamental concepts. If the framework is well-developed, the child is better able to integrate into it the new information and ideas that the school presents. Early experience relevant to the processes of school learning constitutes an overwhelming advantage. This is why the Commission places such emphasis on supporting parents and redressing the effects of social and economic disadvantage at an early stage. But there is also a need for schools to increase their efforts to enrich the experience of children from disadvantaged backgrounds and for government to adopt a similar approach to the problem of stalled or regressing literacy as was adopted for early stages around ten years ago.
Finally, turning to the issue of how to develop higher literacy skills, it is important to define what those skills are. The CfEExperiences and Outcomestake us part of the way. Skills, such as organising information, distinguishing fact from opinion and summarising, are mentioned and could contribute to an approach to higher literacy based on progression in skills. Communicating at an advanced level through the written word is heavily dependent on skills such as these. However, their use is by no means confined to traditional printed media. At this level, the development of literacy-related skills merges into a more general form of intellectual development.
If young people are to develop these higher-order intellectual skills, it is crucial that they are explicitly taught. Young people should be made aware at the outset what skills they are going to acquire and why they are important. At the conclusion of any unit of work, they should be reminded of what they have learned and be made aware of its application. This element of metacognition is a crucial part of sound learning at any level. It is no less significant when dealing with learning at an advanced level.
It is important that the skill is seen as being of widespread application. The ability to use knowledge, understanding and skills in areas other than the one in which they were acquired is essential. In some highly specialised areas of learning, skills may be needed for very specific purposes and have few applications in other contexts. The higher-order skills, like analysis and critical thinking, which are associated with advanced literacy, are not like this; they have everyday significance in much the same way as basic decoding. They are the transferable skills of the 21stcentury.
It may seem a long journey from the earliest stages of familiarity with letters to the application of critical understanding at advanced levels but, as has been stated, all literacy-related skills are part of a continuum. Schools have the task of trying to ensure that every young person progresses as far along it as possible. An effective national strategy for literacy must take this as its objective.
If the problems of poor basic literacy are to be addressed, there has to be a recognition that socio-economic issues are the main underlying cause and there need to be programmes that focus on addressing these problems. As the report by the National Literacy Trust makes clear, only in this way will it be possible to create a virtuous upward spiral that enables everyone to participate in the literate society and lifts people out of disadvantage. This leads us to make the following clear recommendations.
- As a nation, Scotland should make a formal commitment to zero tolerance of illiteracy.
- There should be a sustained policy commitment from all levels of government and educational management to address the issue of improving standards of literacy at all levels.
- A focus for local authorities should be to ensure that best practice is shared in order to develop consistent, effective, multi-agency strategies that meet the emotional as well as literacy needs of the children in their care.
- The allocation of education resources should reflect the priority of improving literacy levels.