`Great shame' of Scottish society

27th April 2012 at 01:00
Educationalists discuss ways of tackling illiteracy and a CfE media backlash

One of the Scottish government's top education civil servants has predicted that Curriculum for Excellence will face a rising tide of media criticism and urged teachers to hold true to its principles.

Jackie Brock, who is leaving the government in two months' time to lead the Children in Scotland charity, warned a national literacy conference that there would be pressure, including "calls for testing and all the things you begged us not to do", as media interest in the reform cranked up.

In a year's time, she did not want there to have been "another flip-flop" as a result of the "media furore" that could greet the first findings of a new national literacy survey.

Ms Brock - director of curriculum, health and well-being - described the proportion of illiterate children as "one of the great shames of Scottish society". But she saw the situation in England, where phonics-based reading tests of all six-year-olds are being introduced, as "pretty horrific".

Alasdair Allan, minister for learning, science and Scotland's languages, said there must be "sustained action at all levels of government". The keys to success included long-term approaches in the early years, continuing professional development that prioritises shared practice, and better evaluation of reading skills.

The conference also heard from Fife Council about its efforts to improve literacy through a more sophisticated use of data. Area education officer Donna Manson said that accountability was important, too, and applied to primary schools as much as secondaries.

Fife, which has moved away from crude indicators such as free school meals, has amassed data showing that some schools, which might otherwise have been considered trailing behind in literacy, are in fact doing better than projected, and vice versa. Meanwhile, the professional review and development of every Fife teacher is to have a literacy element.

Getting teachers outside English departments to support the idea of literacy across the curriculum will be difficult, warned Highland quality improvement officer Dave McCartney.

Teachers of other subjects would only be convinced by research establishing a link between literacy work in their classes and improved attainment, he suggested.

The University of Warwick's David Wray reminded delegates at the Stirling conference that the definition of illiteracy was contested, and that care should be taken not to overstate the problem in the UK.

"There's hardly anyone who's not literate - we're talking about degrees," the professor of literacy education said.

Alistair Moffat, rector of the University of St Andrews and a director of the Borders Book Festival, had earlier put the focus on parents and libraries. They had helped him after he spent most of his time at primary school - in the 1950s and 1960s - "unable to read the most rudimentary things".

"I still think that librarians are alchemists," he said.


Read on

The last edition of the old Scottish Survey of Achievement, published in 2010, painted a mixed picture of children's reading skills.

The survey - succeeded by the Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy, which is to publish its first literacy findings next year - found that the proportion of pupils attaining expected levels in reading decreased through primary and secondary.

At P3, more than 75 per cent of pupils were estimated to have "well- established" or better skills at the expected level. That compared with 40 per cent at S2.

The proportion of pupils in deprived areas with skills at the expected level was around 20 percentage points less than for pupils in less deprived areas across all stages.

Original headline: Literacy conference hears about the `great shame' of Scottish society

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