How Last Chance Kids are brought to book

19th October 2007 at 01:00
Eight-year-old Jordan is practising reading with his mother. "You. You first," he says, glancing at the open book and then hiding behind his mother's hair.

His mother reads: "The papershop is at the bus-stop." Jordan repeats her words, and his mother nods approvingly. Then she turns the page.

Jordan, a pupil at Monteagle Primary in Dagenham, north-east London, is one of the protagonists of Last Chance Kids, a new three-part documentary to be shown on Channel 4 next week. It forms part of the Lost For Words literary season which will also include a presentation of Richard and Judy's favourite children's books and an investigation into why some British children struggle with reading.

Fifty-three per cent of Monteagle pupils are at least a year behind their expected reading age. A quarter do not register any reading age.

So Lynna Thompson, the head, invites Ruth Miskin, no-nonsense founder of the synthetic-phonics scheme Read Write Inc, along with a Channel 4 camera crew, to visit her school. Children are divided into groups according to ability, so that six-year-olds are working together with nine-year-olds. For a year, all pupils of all abilities are taught to read the Miskin way.

Viewers are then introduced to Jordan, nine-year-old Liam and Christian, seven. None of them is able to read. They are all regularly told off for fighting and misbehaving. But Ms Thompson is forgiving. "If you can't read, if you can't access the curriculum, and you've got to come to school every day, you might be thinking, what's the point?" she tells the film-makers.

Within days of the Miskin method being introduced, it is not just pupils who are misbehaving. Teachers complain that the scheme is boring and repetitive. Senior teacher Kirstin Mackie says: "It was worse than any Ofsted I've ever been in."

Ms Miskin informs staff that they must adapt all teaching to her scheme, down to the hand signals they use with pupils. "I have my own signals," says Ms Mackie. There is a pause. "Interesting," says Ms Miskin. Ms Mackie slouches in her seat and folds her arms.

Within weeks, though, they are witnessing tangible results. First, Christian correctly reads several sentences from a book, his mother watching tearfully. Then Liam develops a love of reading, voraciously ploughing through every book on dinosaurs in the public library. Later, he volunteers to read out loud for younger pupils. This is Ms Mackie's Damascene conversion point. "Seeing Liam actually reading and ... being enthusiastic in lessons, that made me think again," she says. "I love the scheme now."

She is not the only one. Suzanne Lynch, the programme's director, has since decided to give up filming and provide media lessons for schoolchildren. In fact, by the end of the first episode, only Jordan remains unconvinced.

Eventually, Ms Miskin takes him for a one-on-one session. "S-A-D," she says, placing cards in front of him. "What does that spell?" The answer is written all over his face.

- 'Last Chance Kids' will be shown on Channel 4 at 9pm from October 23-25.

Ruth Miskin, page 27

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