Classes of 20 will not make children read

12th December 2003 at 00:00
I'm sorry to return with rather too much haste to the subject of literacy, but I am increasingly aware of anxiety regarding the Scottish Executive's plans to reduce the size of secondary 1 and 2 English and maths classes to 20 pupils.

Indeed, the editor of this newspaper, in a recent leader column, pointed out that this policy was born primarily out of the need to score political points rather than any carefully researched educational rationale.

Oh, all right, I concede that none of us is going to turn up our noses at the prospect of smaller classes, recognising that it may seem churlish not simply to accept the offer with a grateful "thanks very much, Mr McConnell".

But we must delve deeper, and ask exactly how we are doing in the literacy stakes. Not well, is the answer I must give after a recent visit to a shoe shop. Its notice read: "Get two souls repaired for the price of one!" OK, mock away, retort those who consider literacy levels to be fine and dandy.

Anyone can make a spelling error, granted. Yet consider this. Some children don't seem to progress very much at all.

There are presumably all kinds of reasons for such abject failure. I rather suspect that the size of English and maths classes is low down the list of contributory factors. More clamant reasons are poor parenting skills, the grossly inadequate support for learning provision and the lack of radical direction in tackling literacy and numeracy.

Many parents are not coping well with parenting. A health visitor friend tells me unsettling tales about how hordes of kids are no longer read to - they therefore never learn to concentrate and listen. Arguably just as damaging is the way many children are fed on convenience foods, their parents not having the time, inclination or know-how to produce even the most basic home-cooked dishes. This has a huge impact on developing minds.

What happens to these disadvantaged children when they come to school? Obviously, individual schools may offer various initiatives but there is no nationwide effort to save the low achievers from sinking even lower. By the time these children enter secondary school they are already doomed - they are scraping along at levels A and B in English and maths, and most of them will stay right there.

What they need primarily is not to be taught in smaller English and maths classes but intensive support for learning. Problem: such individualised help does not exist in Scotland unless the child has a legally binding record of needs. Children slightly below that level are lost. They may receive a smattering of support for learning - a couple of hours per week - but it is not enough to bring them on. Such children are sitting in all of our S1 and 2 classes, and the system continues to fail them.

Another crucial point. Reducing class sizes in English and maths cannot in itself drive up standards. The Scottish Executive must examine what is being taught in English and maths. It is perfectly possible at the moment to teach an S1 English class for a year and not confront them with literacy issues at all. Plays, poems, novels, whatever - there is no guarantee at the moment that literacy will be addressed any more explicitly in English than in history or religious education, for instance.

Maybe then it will be necessary to prescribe some content in English and maths to make sure of a more concerted focus on literacy and numeracy. This is not unreasonable when you consider that they both already command a larger share of the curriculum during S1 and S2 than any other subject.

The more you tease out this one, the more you realise that the Scottish Executive's plan for English and maths classes is ill-thought-out.

Dysfunctional is the term for it. It's time to think of the pupils, not the politics.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, psychology and philosophy at Forres Academy.

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