Pioneer's fears are realised

21st April 1995 at 01:00
Professor Marie Clay always feared that Reading Recovery might be in for a rough ride in Britain, and from the beginning of the new term part of her fears become reality.

Government funding for the first national Reading Recovery programme ran out at the end of last term and is not being directly replaced. From September, too, funds cease for any national co-ordination for Reading Recovery at London University's Institute of Education, which Professor Clay considers an essential part of the programme's proven success.

Marie Clay developed Reading Recovery at Auckland University, and since 1988 it has been used throughout New Zealand to detect reading difficulties at the age of six, and solve them at once. She came to Britain as a visiting professor to the Institute for two years in l991, so the 1992 General Election fell halfway through her stay. In the midst of the campaign, the then Education Secretary Kenneth Clarke got wind of a Labour commitment to Reading Recovery and announced a Pounds 10 million pilot.

Speaking from her home in New Zealand she said: "It became political in the very early days." Still, she is philosophical. "If we had not had that political funding we could not have demonstrated that the programme works. " The downside is that although research has now shown conclusively that the programme does work, the political imperative has gone, and with it the assured funding.

In New Zealand, where a right-wing government has set about cutting education and welfare benefits, Reading Recovery has never been a political battleground, and is as strong as ever.

Reading Recovery identifies the 20 per cent least accomplished six-year-old readers. These children receive half an hour's one to one teaching individually designed every day for up to 20 weeks. When they return to the classroom, if the programme has been successful, they have reached the average reading level of their classmates, and the knowledge does not decay.

Clarke's initiative switched Pounds 10 million of existing urban money to run the 1992 programme in 20 inner city areas for three years. British results have confirmed that the programme can be successfully imported. Research commissioned by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) tested 400 children from seven local authorities. The report, published in March, says: "In the space of the eight or nine months between pre-test and first follow-up, the Reading Recovery children made around 17 months progress in reading".

Even children who do not go into the programme benefit from its presence in their schools and eight out of 10 teachers said having it there had affected the way they taught reading, a view which rings true with the New Zealand primary profession.

So what will happen to Reading Recovery now? Twelve of the original 20 LEAs have made successful bids for money from the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB), a catch-all budget for housing, training and education projects. But this is money with geographical strings attached - bounded by the borders of housing estates, for example. Some councils expect to get money through GEST but according to national co-ordinator Julia Douetil this money has strings too, being limited to training new teachers. Research shows that teachers become more effective after a couple of years and that reading recovery pays as a long term investment.

In the eight or so authorities with no central funding some local funds may be found until August - such as in Hammersmith (see below). According to Ms Douetil, councils that were disappointed this year are being encouraged to bid again for SRB money in l996-7.

But long-term survival depends on national co-ordination, which cost Pounds 100,000 last year and for which the government is no longer willing to pay. Without it, Reading Recovery will slowly cease to be effective, warns Professor Clay.

A unit based at the London Institute of Education has so far provided training for tutors, support for existing tutors, and support for LEAs which are embarking on the programme. Angela Hobsbaum, one of the co-ordinators, says they are seeking charitable money as well as subscriptions from the LEAs involved. It will be an uphill struggle. As Ms Hobsbaum says, this is the worst possible time to go to LEAs for money. But she is determined: "We are not going to sink without trace."

Professor Clay manages to be upbeat about the future, too. "There will be a standstill or even a reduction. But I have seen other places where there has been a short term retrenchment, and I hope that will be the case in Britain. The issue of national co-ordination is vital."

Angela Hobsbaum's greatest fear is that cheaper alternatives may take over. Such fears are reinforced by the decision of Islington's Labour council to switch spending of Pounds 250,000 from Reading Recovery to its own initiative for 9-10-year-olds. Islington's reading recovery tutor has been given notice of redundancy, and a literacy project manager appointed.

Education chair Phil Kelly believes this will enable Islington to help more children for the same money. Angela Hobsbaum believes it may improve teaching practice in schools but will not help the lowest-achieving readers when they need it most.

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