Literacy level? Depends how you read it

9th November 2007 at 00:00
English schools are being condemned for almost the same standards that Gordon Brown praised in a small area of Scotland.If schools followed the example of West Dunbartonshire, every primary pupil in the country would reach the "expected" level in literacy. That was the message from Gordon Brown last week.

It would be wrong to suggest that the Prime Minister was mistaken to highlight this small Scottish education authority in his first major education speech since taking over at number 10. It surely deserves the plaudits, but it should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

Once famous for building ships such as the Cutty Sark, the Queen Mary and the QE2, for the past decade this area of western Scotland has been carving out a new and justified reputation as a centre of excellence for teaching reading.

By the turn of the millennium it had become one of the most economically disadvantaged areas of the country, with educational standards to match.

In 2001, 28 per cent of its pupils were entering secondary school functionally illiterate, with most likely to be in the same position by the time they finally left school. The council decided this was intolerable because of the damage it did to the economy and people's health, wealth and happiness.

Inspired by Tommy MacKay, a local educational psychologist, in 1997 it declared a zero tolerance policy towards illiteracy and made the unlikely claim that it could eradicate the problem from its schools within a decade.

It is almost there. Results from May 2007 showed that 97 per cent of pupils were leaving primary school functionally literate.

Why cast doubt on Mr Brown's claim? He was talking about the "expected" level of literacy. For a pupil leaving primary school aged 11 in England that means the reading skills expected of an 11-year-old, or level 4 in a national reading test.

Newspapers regularly pillory ministers and teachers when pupils fail to reach this level, saying it means they are unable to read. But the bar for functional literacy - the goal West Dunbartonshire has aimed for - is set lower, at a reading age of 9 years and 6 months. And, because of Scotland's later primary school leaving age, by the time West Dunbartonshire pupils have left, about half of them will be 12.

This year's national test results showed that 93 per cent of 11-year-olds in England achieved a level 3 in reading, the level expected of a 9-year-old.

So, the majority of English primary leavers are well on their way to reaching the West Dunbartonshire goal already, even though there is still a sizeable gap to close before they reach "expected" levels.

Right-wing newspapers and pundits have condemned English schools for almost the same standards that they praised as miraculous when they found them in this area of Scotland.

The reason could probably be summed up in two words - synthetic phonics. The reading method brought back into fashion by another Scottish authority, Clackmannanshire, is now Government policy for all primary schools in England. It has won particular praise from traditionalists and has been right at the heart of West Dunbartonshire's successful drive for improvement, though it is far from being the whole story.

Alongside the Jolly Phonics programme - based on blending 44 individual sounds into words - Dr MacKay brought in an early intervention team, ensured the whole community was involved and targeted pupils at the top as well as the bottom end of primary school.

The early intervention team now uses 20 centrally employed peripatetic teachers who go into classrooms to work with infants in all the authority's primaries and nurseries, as well as monitoring the work of pupils who have difficulties when they reach secondary level.

There is also an emphasis on home-link work with teachers, encouraging parents to get involved in their children's reading. The parents come in for workshops and are asked to read books to their children before they begin school.

For the minority of older primary pupils for whom Jolly Phonics has not worked there is a one-to-one tutoring scheme called Toe by Toe that uses nonsense sounds and words to help them to make the connection between symbols and sounds.

The approach has not just been about a new method of teaching literacy, it has been about changing children's attitudes towards reading by getting everyone on board, from the dinner ladies to the headteachers. "It is about more than the programme, it is about the people who deliver it," said Helen Nelis, head of the early intervention team. "It is about their passion. None of this is possible without people working in partnership together."

It has produced unquestionably fast and impressive results. Whether it can live up to the claims that the Prime Minister made of it last week is a different matter.


"Now in primary education every child should reach the expected level in literacy and numeracy. If the best in the world can do it now, so should we. For those who say it is not possible, I say visit West Dunbartonshire, one of the most disadvantaged parts of Scotland."

Gordon Brown, October 31, 2007


Avril Davie, headteacher of Knoxland Primary in Dumbarton, said her teachers like the West Dunbartonshire literacy scheme because of its structure.

Since the school joined the scheme in 1999 it has been given a calendar every year that shows week by week which section of the phonics programme should be taught. Longer-serving teachers can use it as a starting point and employ their experience to give extra support to those at the top or bottom of the class.

Mrs Davie warned that it might be difficult for individual English primaries to replicate its success. "It works because every primary in the authority does this," she said. "So teachers can meet up and discuss good practice, which has really helped because they are all using the same method. It is like they have a common language."

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