It takes the whole city . . .

17th January 1997 at 00:00
Neil McClelland argues that schools can't sell literacy to all young people without local partners and a motivating spark

We must lift literacy standards in the United Kingdom. The implications of the new workplace, international economic competition and globalisation of employment, are pretty well understood and we know they will have profound implications. Whether or not we have declining literacy standards is far from clear; but we do know that growing demands are creating a yawning literacy gap and we need urgent and radical action. We are not alone with this problem; the recently-published OECD international adult literacy survey Literacy, Economy Society, recorded similar concerns in seven of our competitor nations, and some of these countries can be expected to respond strategically.

I believe there is a danger that, through lack of both will and imagination, we may fail to respond adequately to the new demands. If we are going to be proactive and ensure sustainable rather than short-term successes - which I fear will be the likely outcome of the current agenda - we need to avoid the simplistic attractions of the "let's fix the schools" campaign and the equally misleading, "let's fix the parents" lobbies.

The issues are complex and there is no panacea, but one thing is clear; we must plan and invest properly now, in order to gain profound future benefits. Our national strategy requires more attention to the demand side - the motivation each individual has to value literacy. Achievement is about will as well as skill. We are not going to create a society in which everyone has the necessary skills for personal and economic success unless we create in millions of individuals an appetite or "demand" for literacy in their lives. Schools work hard to do this but they need help.

Obviously, the agenda for lifting literacy standards also has to recognise the need to improve the quality and quantity of the "supply side" - literacy teaching and support activity - and that, however good our schools, they are not sufficient on their own.

The National Literacy Trust is committed to a whole-community approach to literacy and also to encouraging more reading and writing for pleasure. We believe that these two dimensions are interdependent components; and the context for this activity must be development of the necessary "inner" and "outer" strands: what happens in formal education and in the wider community.

The "inner" strand is the work of the professional educators in schools, colleges and community education. This dimension obviously contributes both to the supply and the demand side - but unfortunately, less effectively to the latter than is necessary, as we know that current education provision is failing to inspire many thousands of children and young people to "demand" extended literacy skills.

However good our schools, we should always be looking for improvement, and the "inner strand" agenda should include: more curricular time for literacy; more early intervention to support failing pupils; systematic phonics teaching, and the resources to enable primary schools in particular to provide better quality books and information technology equipment. This will either cost extra money, or require a higher priority for literacy in the curriculum. I would contend that we have no alternative if we are to break out of the current inadequacies. Confidence, competence and enjoyment of literacy must surely be the fundamental right of every child leaving the primary sector, and we know that, despite the best efforts of dedicated teachers, that is not the case at the moment. The courage and imagination to reorganise now for this goal will be rewarded by both educational and financial benefits.

The purpose of this article, however, is not to dwell on the professional issues but to argue that they will not be sufficient. We also need to stimulate the wealth of support potentially available from the wider community - the "outer strand". The objective is not only to increase the literacy activities of libraries, the arts and community groups, but also to release the energies, imagination and skills of the whole community to work on the "demand side". Children and young people will not take full advantage of opportunities unless we get better at selling literacy to them - until they are motivated to demand it.

For millions of people this will be a tall order and therefore we need new approaches to those who have traditionally been most disadvantaged by a lack of literacy skills; normally, of course, the same people who are disadvantaged in their wider learning and in their socio-economic opportunities.

For many the culture is anti-education and anti-literacy. We need to recognise this, and to find out why they are alienated, frustrated or totally unconcerned. Then we must build from this position. We owe it to all school leavers to provide them with the foundation skills of literacy that will open up employment and personal opportunities. We need to work on aspirations, expectations, self-confidence and dispositions. This will not be achieved by criticism and negativity, nor without more support for schools from the wider community and the wider culture. The various media which so influence popular culture have a responsibility to work with us on this.

The National Literacy Trust's model for the collaborative literacy approach, which is now beginning in Newcastle, is built upon the interdependence of the four dimensions of supply and demand in the inner and outer strands. The aim will be to harness the energies and expertise of the whole city in a high-profile 10-year commitment to build a community culture which will enable all, and particularly those traditionally most disadvantaged by lack of literacy skills, to benefit fully from the profound educational, social and employment advantages that confidence and competence in literacy can bring. Our collaborative model has stimulated a great deal of interest because it can complement conventional local authorityschool literacy initiatives, and we are currently working with a number of other local authorities to help develop similar models.

Communities wishing to establish such an holistic approach need to act on the following principles: * they should first recognise the value of the literacy already existing in homes; * literacy should be stressed as important for achievement and social participation but, equally, should be imaginatively "sold" to stress enjoyment; * all whole-community projects must accept the need for a long-term vision: cultural change doesn't happen in two or three years; * a co-ordinated approach harnessing all sectors of the community is necessary - parents, volunteers, libraries, health, business, local media, community groups, local celebrities, religious groups; they all have a role to play. Sometimes the spark that motivates the individual comes from the most unorthodox of approaches and unexpected of sources; * those responsible for co-ordinating and leading the project must be prepared to respond to the community agenda, rather than impose their own. They must be well aware of community development and empowerment issues and the micro-politics of such a networking approach; * collaborative projects must be conscious of the perceptions of those who have had bad experiences and written off literacy as "not for them". There must be a no-blame culture that accentuates the positive, the fun and the benefits. This is essentially a political issue.

We owe it to society, and to every individual, to maximise literacy competence and confidence. We have a national problem and won't solve it unless we recognise the need for a dual approach, which invests more in analysing, developing, supporting and disseminating the best of current school literacy teaching, and at the same time creates a framework of cultural support in the wider community.

The issue is multi-dimensional. It is like the creation of a large jigsaw of mutually supportive and necessary parts. We need some extra resources but better use of existing expenditure. We need to work more collaboratively, more systematically and more strategically.

Neil McClelland is director of the National Literacy Trust

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