The three horsemen of literacy

10th January 1997 at 00:00
As the new year gathers momentum, the cloud no bigger than a person's hand is quite clear on the horizon. The millennium is on its way, and the run-up is bound to be absorbing. It will produce either a torrent of looniness about the end of the world, or a refurbishment of dreams of initiating a kick-start towards a new utopia, or renewed efforts to lay the groundwork for a secular and political transformation of society that has nothing to do with any ideas of the millennium as understood by Christians.

I suspect that the smart money will be going for a combination of all three. Whatever happens, education is in the thick of it all, and already I have a touch of PMT - Pre Millennial Tension.

My PMT, confined at the amount to mild disquiet, comes from hearing what I suspect are the hoofbeats of the New Horsemen of the Education Apocalypse, or so far, at least three of them. I refer to the Scottish Office's Achievement for All, How Good is our School and Improving Achievements in Scottish Schools. Slim tomes all, but weighty with it, and their message is loud and clear. Achievement is good, must be open to all and there are lots of ways to get it. I could not agree more, and my welcome is cautious only because they are tripping over each other in their haste to grab attention.

Only three? One of my favourite comic-strip characters is Dilbert, a satire on the whole business of business. Its author, Scott Adams, occasionally introduces the sepulchral Grim Downsizer, unhorsed but gliding in to decruit, as he puts it, whole departments. He is the Dear Green Place's worst nightmare come true, as council tax payers face financial wipe-out struggling to keep local services, not least education, limping along. Yet at the same time as he is scythe-swinging, achievement in literacy, and all that is involved in getting it, is clearly the major curricular activity for what will be Glasgow's leaner education service in the years left of this century.

The debate about how this is to be achieved will run and run, and will generate a kaleidoscopic range of theories, alternatives and solutions that will be trotted round the course and then disappear. All of them will seem designed as if by magic to heal the educational wound the city's system has apparently sustained. All of them will cost money.

So elbowing my way to the front of the snake oil merchants and quick-fix hucksters already lining up, I intend to get my blow in first. A mixture of move like a butterfly, sting like a bee, you might say, it is simple, almost facile.

Literacy retrieval must have teachers and exactly targeted resources: both in schools, because raising those levels is going to cost money. Instead of even thinking about downsizing and decruiting the teaching force, employ more teachers with the remit of improving literacy. Give them the materials to do it with, but with a difference, and provide the necessary training.

The difference? I have no evidence but only an intuitive feeling that at least some of Glasgow's literacy difficulties stem from too wide and diverse a range of teaching-reading resources currently in use. In the cluster group of five to which my school is affiliated, four reading schemes are in use, a situation that must have implications of some kind for the first year of secondary school, and this could be duplicated across the city. I think there is a pressing need for immediate debate on the possibility of standardising the reading scheme to be employed in the city's schools, a decision that would ensure equality of literacy opportunity at a stroke and show where additional resources should be directed.

Achievement for All stresses that pupils should be motivated to make learning progress within a common curricular framework, and to promote teaching that builds on prior learning and attainment. The broad-band setting that it visualises for the first two years of secondary school might be more easily achieved in the context of an overall literacy approach rather than a fragmented one. Or is that too millennial on approach?

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