One on one may be way to succeed

29th July 2005 at 01:00
Individualised learning was a government big idea looking for a definition.

It sounded good, but no one knew what it meant. This week, Ruth Kelly and her departmental number-crunchers may have found the answer. Focusing on broad groups and whole schools is not enough. A one-size-fits-all literacy strategy is not enough. It is also essential to provide special help for individual children before they fall too far behind.

The "individual" in Kelly's brave new Britain is not just a middle-class parent hoping to exercise "choice"; he or she is also a small child from a council estate struggling to read. Of course, schools have always striven to help these children. But Ruth Kelly's language in her speech this week is important .

She cited two tests of a government seeking a socially-just society: "Do we improve outcomes for all children?" But also, and importantly for a progressive government: "Do the outcomes of the most disadvantaged improve faster than the others?"

She has wisely not tried to fudge the answer. The gap between rich and poor children is widening, despite overall improvements at 11. She is also brave not to fudge the question. It leaves parent power aside and brings child power to the fore. So, the Government is asking the right questions. But is it finding the right answers? One of the answers is a pound;10 million Reading Recovery pilot, bringing one-to-one tuition for the lowest-achieving six-year-olds to 20 urban areas. But why have another pilot? The previous government ran one a decade ago, and there are reams of research evidence about the scheme's effectiveness.

Labour failed to follow through in 1997 because it was convinced a one-size-fits-all literacy strategy would sort out reading once and for all. Perhaps this time it thinks faster phonics teaching - also being trialled in 200 primaries - will provide the magic bullet.

But ministers also have to accept some of the blame for the growing gap.

Their relentless pressure on schools to meet their level 4 targets encouraged some to neglect the children at the bottom of the class.

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