The trouble with Harry

18th July 1997 at 01:00
School's out, school's out, teacher's let the mules out. Children around the country are clicking their heels as the countdown to the end of the school year gets lower and lower. But for some Year 6s like Harry, their last days at primary school are dogged by anxiety.

It's not that he's unduly sad about having to say goodbye to his teachers and the bricks and mortar that have been a part of his life for so long. No, what's really gnawing away at him, causing him restless nights and grouchy days, is the fear that his gaffe will finally be blown when he starts secondary school in six weeks' time. And what a gaffe it is.

Harry is among the 25 per cent of 11-year-olds who leave primary school with literacy skills below what is required to cope satisfactorily with secondary school. You'd know him if you saw him. He's the one who manages to busk it when asked to read. He also always seems to have a credible reason for not having written an assignment. A sore wrist or a notebook left at home can happen to anyone. Especially to Harry, who's as bright as a button, quick thinking and articulate. He needs to be, to have developed a system for memorising the shape of words and their meanings so that he can cover up his problem.

The whys and wherefores of how his poor literacy skills have come about are many and various, ranging from dyslexia to hearing and sight problems. How he got to the age of 11 without the problem being identified and addressed is another matter altogether. And then what happens when he starts Year 7, two, three or more years behind his chronological age?

According to Charlie Griffiths of the National Literacy Association, "As children get older, they feel more acutely the sense of being out of step with their year group. The leap from primary to secondary is so big that they find it hard to keep up, and once that happens it's hard to put it right." If it is not, Harry will be among the 16 per cent leaving school every year who are functionally illiterate.

And if things go downhill from then on, nobody will be very surprised. He might become one of the thousands of boys who get into trouble with the law. More than 30 per cent of young offenders and 50 per cent of the prison population have major literacy problems. Or he might just withdraw altogether and join the ranks of the long-term unemployed.

If the prospects sound grim for Harry, it's because they are - unless something is done to puts things right. Enter - thank goodness - the new Government's summer school scheme, which will provide a much-needed safety net for children like Harry. Things won't turn around for him over a matter of just a few weeks, but he will be getting the attention that he sorely needs over that time and with it, hopefully, a co-ordinated longer-term strategy to get him back on track.

But the real aim is to avoid children getting to the stage that Harry has reached in the first place. The National Literacy Association's "99 by 99" campaign, which aims to ensure that by 1999, 99 per cent of school leavers will have attained adequate literacy, urges teachers to nip problems in the bud. Among its recommendations are: * Watch out for children who appear to be struggling with reading or writing. On average, at least four children in every class have literacy difficulties.

* Establish a good relationship with the parents of the children in your class. Parents' reports on children's behaviour at home can give valuable insights into how children feel about school and their ability to cope with work. Homeschool reading projects should be in place.

* Explore the uses of IT in supporting literacy. It can be very effective, especially for those with writing and spelling problems.

* Try to focus on literacy issues at least once a term in staff meetings.

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