Make it a relaxed read:Opinion

1st August 1997 at 01:00
A worldly-wise head used to stage the following role-play in front of parents. Taking the part of a father, he would sit down to read with a well-briefed pupil-volunteer, getting increasingly edgy as the child hesitated and made mistakes. "You know that; you did that yesterday," he would say.

"You're getting worse rather than better." Then, the knife through the ribs: "Your brother was better than you at this age." These remarks would be punctuated with sighs and fidgets as the "dad" worked himself up into a state. "You could see the mothers nudging one another and saying, that's just how my husband is," the head recalls.

The point of this tale, of course, is that Stephen Byers's well-meaning guideline urging parents to read with their children for 20 minutes a day must not turn reading into a chore or a counter-productive ordeal for either parent or child.

Good reading skills provide access to the wider curriculum and decent jobs, and research shows that many of the long-term unemployed - and even prisoners - have literacy problems. But reading also opens up magical worlds of strange places and delightful characters, of good satisfyingly triumphing over evil, of knowledge about the planets, or the pet cat, or a favourite football team.

Reading should be a delight, and 10 minutes relaxing with a book, discussing the pictures and the story in an easy way, will be more beneficial than 20 minutes of stressed-out toil while minds are on the dirty dishes piled up at the sink or the other children out riding their bicycles in the sun.

It is also important that fathers, not just mothers, are encouraged to read with their children, particularly with boys in working-class families who think reading is not macho. Again, for many children, 10 minutes reading with dad will do more for developing a positive attitude than 20 minutes with mum.

It is easy to nitpick over some of Labour's headline-grabbing initiatives, but it is right to believe that publicity can help change attitudes - as their predecessors in government so skilfully showed. The need to promote good links between home and school cannot be overstated. Too many schools are still wary of parents, and not all are good at sharing their knowledge or crediting parents' natural teaching abilities.

Parents need support and advice from schools, but not so much pressure that they become anxious. For those parents who don't read well themselves, the Government is spending Pounds 1.8 million to extend a pilot Basic Skills Agency family-literacy scheme. These three-month courses involve sessions for parents alone and for parents with their primary-school children. It is impossible to argue with ministers' aims. Such schemes will help whole families to read better, feel more secure and have better job prospects.

A range of family-literacy schemes over the years have improved the reading levels and happiness of children and adults. This is why the Government in future should cast its net wider. It is to be hoped that they will not latch on to only one version, particularly one which demands consistent attendance over several months. The neediest parents in the direst straits will find it hardest to follow through. Outreach programmes, going into communities and homes, may be able to reach the parents that other schemes cannot.

Another guiding principle that the Government must adopt is: You cannot start too young. The PEEP (Peers Early Education Partnership) scheme on the Blackbird Leys estate in Oxford recruits new mothers straight from the hospital. Lewisham's Baby Start! uses health visitors to distribute book packs during regular checks and also provides free sessions on storytelling.

Lewisham has successful school-based family-literacy projects, but has found that children still enter school knowing nothing about books. The rewards of starting young are clear from the experience of Birmingham's Bookstart project. Almost 70 per cent of parents involved said looking at books was one of their child's favourite activities compared to 21 per cent in other families.

It is, therefore, understandable that Labour wants to act swiftly, but there should also be time for reflection. It must make sure that it doesn't settle on all the answers before it has asked all the questions.

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