City literacy gap cannot be ignored

13th September 1996 at 01:00
John Marks' privileged view of the key stage 2 English national tests scores for 1995 (TES, August 30) reveals wide discrepancies between the "best" schools in Richmond-upon-Thames and the "worst" in Tower Hamlets.

We should be shocked, but not really surprised. The lengthening and thickening of the tail of underachievement has been the most significant feature of test scores in reading over the past decade. While the scores of the middle and higher achievers have held up, there appears to be an increasing gap between the haves and the have nots in our schools.

The recent National Foundation for Educational Research report on the reading scores of nine-year-olds tells the same story: "a prominent feature of the England and Wales results on the IEA test was a 'long tail'." It is precisely this that sets our pattern of reading achievement apart from that found in most other countries.

Dr Marks and the hatchet men of the Office for Standards in Education blame ill-prepared, complacent teachers and their ill-organised local education authorities. But, as other studies have shown repeatedly, there's a punishingly close association between low literacy scores and poverty, borne out by the names of the local education authorities at the top and bottom of Marks' league table.

The circumstances in which teachers and children are working won't cease to make a difference if we ignore them. Unlike their counterparts in other European countries, our inner-city teachers are struggling with the Herculean task of educating children whose material circumstances are further removed from those of the prosperous suburbs than at any time since the Victorian era.

Of course there are schools and teachers who can demonstrate clearly that it's possible to teach inner-city children to read and write effectively. Their classrooms should be studied closely. But to make this success the norm in inner-city areas will require a massive investment of material and moral support if teachers are to stem the tide of inequality that has swept through our whole society in the past decade.

HENRIETTA DOMBEY Professor of literacy in primary education University of Brighton Faculty of Education, Sport and Leisure East Sussex

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