Rising to the occasion on reading

8th November 1996 at 00:00
A sometimes irrational desire to reinvent the flat tyre ranks high among the occupational hazards of the policy-making, decision-taking community. Instructions may read differently and they may be printed on glossier paper, but the effect is the same. It has been tried before, it didn't quite work, so let's try to work it another way and it still doesn't work.

A good example is reading. Anyone remember ITA? Do you Phonic or Look and Say? Colours in spelling? Cost of new reading schemes? The cynically disposed might mutter they have seen and heard it all before, but I am not too sure this time. Perhaps with its avowed intention to upgrade literacy, Glasgow has come up with a different kind of inflater.

Some weeks ago, I attended a Scottish Support for Learning Association meeting in Glasgow. What surprised me were the large numbers of across-the-board staff present, for attendance at this kind of clam bake, and the time it was taking place at, indicating double plus levels of commitment.

The speaker was Ronnie O'Connor, the city council's senior depute director of education, and his theme was Glasgow's proposed Literacy Improvement Programme subtitled, excruciatingly, Reading Retrieval. Mr O'Connor sketched out clearly the background to this new initiative, stemming from education's input into regeneration that highlighted the need for improved standards of literacy, outlined the consequences of failure to do this and suggested some ingredients for an early literacy intervention programme.

It was when he outlined a five-point strategy to deal with the problem, focusing on pre-five early literacy exposure, primary 1 and primary 2 reading retrieval, primary 4 and primary 5 reading for meaning, secondary l and secondary 2 fresh start programmes, and parental support for pupils at all stages, that my attention started to wander. This was nothing to do with Mr O'Connor, a skilled and experienced expositor in full control of his material, but I found myself trying to recall something that niggled the memory.

After a time I got it. What was being described resembled a series of Magic Bullets, in the style of Paul Ehrlich, master microbe hunter, whose research was to find something that identified and attacked disorder in the body, while sparing the body's cells. And did. Thinking over the meeting, I felt a little uneasy that no ordnance was mentioned for primary 6 and primary 7 levels. That was, until Achievement For All hit the streets with its own Magic Bullet, setting, spinning out of its barrel.

I caught a faint whiff of nostalgia when I read Circular 1096. Just over four years ago, the wise persons from the east came to call. At that time, due to allowances for areas of priority treatment and an unpredicted dip in population, a primitive form of setting for reading and mathematics from primary 4 to primary 7 was in operation that in our view, in their view, and in the children's view worked effectively.

Sadly, no more. Withdrawal of priority treatment put paid to that. But, with reference to Glasgow's Literacy Improvement Programme and the city's avowed intention and determination to raise standards, I think that setting at primary 6 and primary 7 would be an excellent way of catering for the able child, providing much needed help for children with depressed attainments and filling a gap in the overall strategy.

Inevitably, the hidey-holes under the stairs let out the bugaboos. Ability bands don't mean progression. Counter-productive. Timetabling. Schools lose autonomy. The qualy. Every movement towards a new frontier leaves ghost towns with tumbleweed blowing through deserted streets. Mixed ability might be just one such ball of weed.

We can all learn Abraham Lincoln's approach, talking about the Civil War: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew." The Reading Wars are about to start.

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