Labour's Literacy Summer Schools have defied their critics and also provided several fringe benefits, argues Bob Salisbury
It was disappointing to see the early response by a few commentators to the Literacy Summer Schools initiative. This innovative scheme ran for three weeks in the holidays, and selected schools were asked to deliver an intensive course of tuition to 11-year-old youngsters about to transfer to secondary school. It was hoped that this concentrated effort would have an impact on reading scores.
Claims have been made that some schools involved had failed their pupils and that "more than l0 per cent of pupils attending the courses left with a lower reading age than when they started". The conclusion following this "evidence" was that the initiative, which was well supported by industry, parents and teachers alike, should be scrapped, rather than expanded next year as the Government intends.
Making sweeping judgments about the success or failure of the scheme is surely premature. Objective test results have yet to be published by the National Foundation for Educational Research, and only then will the efficacy of this novel approach be seen. It has to be hoped that progress will have been made but in one sense mere assessment of mathematical scores is missing a vital point.
Improving literacy levels among youngsters will inevitably be more than a three-week job. Many pupils, especially the boys, have already learned the hard lesson of failure from their earlier attempts at reading, and have all but decided that enjoyment from the printed page is "just not for them".
Suffering repeated lack of success not only damages confidence and self-esteem, but often builds resentment and animosity towards the whole notion of academic study and to those who try to deliver it.
No mechanical dash through the various reading schemes is likely to succeed totally, however well structured and delivered, simply because most of the approaches have been tried in some form many times before.
The real purpose behind the Summer School idea, and in my view its great strength, was its innovative approach to tackling entrenched negative attitudes by taking on some of the traditional assumptions about when and where learning takes place.
We were told by the cynics before we began that it would be impossible to get youngsters involved during the holidays, that teachers would resent the intrusion into their summer break, and that parents who had to reorganise their days in order to provide transport would be unco-operative.
This scepticism was unfounded, and in this school the Summer School certainly worked and created a culture that has already achieved substantial "fringe benefits". Attendance at the classes was excellent, support from parents and local industry remarkable and the enthusiasm and involvement from staff inspirational. It showed all involved that learning can be, in Noel Coward's words, "more fun than fun" and that study need not be viewed as a chore to be endured.
Parents and pupils were asked to complete an end-of-course questionnaire, and the responses were revealing. Children talked of "making progress" and "feeling happy about moving to the senior school". Parents commented on the positive attitudes of their youngsters towards the school and the teachers. Simple things like getting to know the layout of the buildings were also deemed important.
Schools chosen to take part in the scheme next year will not only have the luxury of having adequate time to prepare, but also the opportunity to learn from the experiences of the pilot schools.
What we would certainly do differently in the future is to decide the objectives of the Summer School more precisely. Individuals selected to attend could then be matched more closely with intended outcomes. In this way, specific weaknesses could be targeted and the course planned accordingly rather than relying on a more generalised approach based on composite reading scores.
Second, all parents and pupils, including those not actually taking part, need to be very clear and reassured beforehand about the purpose behind the Summer School. There will then be no misunderstanding about the nature of the scheme, about the selection procedures involved and of the likely outcomes. This will short-circuit any worries about participating youngsters being stigmatised as failing readers by their peers .
Denise Margetts, co-ordinator of the Literacy Summer School at the Peers School in Oxford, also felt the scheme was very successful. She suggested some elements could be improved, however, and argued that there were hidden costs in the planning that were not immediately apparent and which were not reflected in the budget provided.
In practice, the money and time allocated did not meet the actual costs of setting up the organisation. Hence associated activities such as providing meals, caretaking and cleaning services sometimes stretched the available resources.
It was also evident that the success of the programme still relied on voluntary help, support staff from outside agencies and volunteer teachers to provide a package which was both varied and exciting. Consideration of these "hidden costs" should perhaps be reflected in the funding for next year.
The staff running the Summer School in Oxford also felt that an effective strategy to break up the concentration on literacy was the introduction of a sporting hour each afternoon.
It is true that only 43 per cent of 11-year-olds reach the national standard for their age and there is a significant gap between able and less able pupils which creates a long "trailing edge".
This is clearly unacceptable and quite rightly the Government has pledged to improve matters. New approaches need to be tried. The Summer School idea is a refreshing look at a stubborn hurdle, and its successes and failures should be examined in a wider context than merely totting up reading scores.
Those youngsters taking part this year started their time at secondary school with a new optimism, and a revitalised spring in their step - this outcome alone should not be dismissed lightly!
Bob Salisbury is headteacher of Garibaldi school in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire