Welcome this with open minds

25th July 1997 at 01:00
The invitation to join the new literacy pilot project which begins next week came late for this school. Further funding had been generously offered by News International at late notice and the opportunity to participate was seized readily by the teaching staff.

Basically the scheme is an experiment to see if further reading support given to thirty 11-year-old youngsters during the school holidays will have any impact on their reading levels before they enter secondary school. Most parents and many local and national industries have welcomed the initiative and have given instant encouragement and support. Curiously, not everyone is quite so happy.

A few parents have opted not to take part as they feel the one-to-one special attention given to their children will "stigmatise them and brand them as poor readers". Some primary teachers have seen the scheme as an affront to the work they have been doing for five years, and some have objected to the knowledge about reading levels being discussed in public. Some were clearly opposed to school holidays being used for additional study.

All are surely missing the point. At issue here is not who actually tries to tackle the problem of poor literacy or when this actually takes place, but that as a nation we see the wisdom of constantly trying new approaches to see if things can be made to improve.

The ability to read is probably the single most important skill any child will need to acquire. Reading unlocks the door to so many opportunities and closes it just as surely to those who fail. As a country we cannot afford to ignore the plight of the 20 per cent of pupils who come out of schools with inadequate reading skills. We all pay dearly for this failure later on. Poor readers often become "wealth consumers" rather than "wealth creators" and the power of reading in the development of youngsters must be hammered home at an early age.

Of course schools cannot do this alone. Parents must be equal partners in the process. All must become more involved in their children's education by supporting the work of the school. Studies have shown that children's reading improves dramatically when parents take an active interest at home. To help this, a number of pioneering schools have introduced schemes to help parents understand this role and homework clubs, parenting courses and helping with schoolwork sessions are now helping to boost the confidence of parents and children.

Sadly, it can be almost already too late for some children who arrive at secondary school as poor readers. Constant failure earlier on, especially among boys, can destroy any interest which may have existed and can convince them that reading is in no way enjoyable and is definitely "not for them". For both teachers and pupils alike, the "catch up time" for the next few years can be very hard going. It is no co-incidence that two-thirds of all secondary students excluded from school have poor basic skills with reading ages three years below their chronological age.

As a nation we must surely see the sense of investing more time and money in our five and six year-olds where basic skills are learned and where the return on what we spend will be much greater. As the costs and expectations of all public sector organisations rise, it is clear there never will be enough money to go round especially to exploit the opportunities offered by computer learning and IT. In my view we should provide more teachers and funding for the early years, if necessary at the expense of more favoured secondary schools.

Schools can no longer be islands or fortresses, and the edges between school and the "outside world" must be less distinct, less delineated. To match our international competitors we need to combat the anti-school feeling which exists in some minds and promote the wisdom of "learning for life" among adults and children alike.

All communities must become Total Learning Communities where every available resource, every classroom, every computer, is used day and night in an inventive, practical and cost efficient manner to drive up the skill levels of all people. This target is the challenge for the 21st century!

The introduction of the Literacy Summer Schools is moving us in the right direction.

Bob Salisbury is the headteacher of Garibaldi School in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire

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