You can help us to boost literacy levels

7th June 1996 at 01:00
The British have over the years developed crisis management into a unique art form. Of course, we are not unique in suffering from crises: what marks us out is the way we manage them.

There are three essential rules that must be followed in a classic British crisis. Rule one: a report is published providing new evidence of what had long been suspected. Shock-horror headlines fill the newspapers. Rule two (and crucial to the British mix): everyone involved, whatever their perspective, must blame someone else. Conversely, the acceptance of responsibility would represent a serious breach of Rule two.

Rule three: once the press pack has moved on and everyone has become bored of blaming everyone else, everyone must go back to what they were doing before . . . until the next time.

Take beef. A report says that 11 cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease may have been caused by BSE, a link which has in any case been suspected for years. Full marks, then, for obeying rule one.

And now all that is left of the beef crisis is a sordid negotiation over how many cows should die, though none of the proposals seems remotely likely to eradicate the disease. Cows will safely graze . . . until the next report. Full marks on rule three.

In the wake of the recent Office for Standards in Education report on reading standards, there is a danger that we will fall into the classic crisis pattern. To do so would be grossly irresponsible; it would be nothing short of a betrayal of the next generation. Improving standards of reading, and indeed other literacy skills, demands a much more constructive response.

The Literacy Task Force established by David Blunkett last week, which I have responsibility for chairing, will seek consciously to avoid British Crisis Syndrome. We will seek instead - with, we hope, the help of everyone involved - to develop a strategy which can lead to higher reading standards and equip all primary pupils with the reading skills they need to make the most of secondary education.

Though the title sounds broad, our task is clearly focused on examining whether it would be realistic to set a target for every 11-year-old being able to read at or above their chronological reading age early in the next century, and on developing the strategies that would be required to achieve or move towards that target.

We shall start from an analysis which is widely shared. Reading standards may or may not have fallen, but are undoubtedly not high enough. Everyone, perhaps most of all primary teachers, would like them to be higher, Underperformance at 11 in literacy has dire consequences.

Secondary schools are often not equipped to ameliorate or rectify it: and if they are, it is expensive. Poor literacy is also associated with poor standards of behaviour, especially among boys. Worse still, we know from the research of Harvey Goldstein and Pam Sammons that pupils who leave primary school as low achievers are likely to be low achievers at 16, too. In other words, the effect of primary school on a pupil's performance at 16 is as great, if not greater, than the effect of secondary school.

The Government has taken some positive steps on reading over the last five years. It funded the Reading Recovery programme for three years, only to withdraw funding as evidence of its success emerged. This year, it announced the establishment of the national literacy centres, of which much is rightly expected. Overall, though, the area has suffered from too many disconnected initiatives and an absence of strategic thinking. For example, though one chief aim of the national curriculum was to raise standards in the 3Rs, the evidence suggests that, because it was so overloaded and bureaucratic in the first few years, it actually reduced the amount of time devoted to reading, and standards may have suffered as a result.

The problem is exacerbated by the extent of conflict over reform and the nature of the public debate about education. The result is a climate in which no one seems willing to take responsibility for what is a systemic failure. Government blames teachers without accepting its own responsibility for providing a strategic overview and without acknowledging that if teachers are to become skilled in teaching reading effectively, there must be a planned programme of professional development.

Teachers tend to react defensively to criticism and their leaders generally point to underfunding or the growth in class sizes as the cause of the problem. Yet the public surely would welcome an acceptance from the profession as a whole that in this overwhelmingly important aspect of education, teachers collectively have not got it right and do need to think again. In other words, it is important that there is a readiness to change.

The chief focus of our deliberations will be on what those changes should be. As we debate the central questions, we shall of course benefit from the information we receive, especially from teachers in schools working to raise standards on a daily basis.

Most valuable to us would be submissions describing clearly and concisely practical approaches which schools, LEAs and universities are using to improve reading standards, along with the evidence for their success.

It is surely time that all those committed to improving reading standards commit themselves to working together to raise them to new levels. For that to happen, a clear target, a coherent strategy and a new climate of critical self reflection among all the partners involved is essential. The Literacy Task Force aims to play its part in bringing that about.

People wishing to send information on raising reading standards to the Literary Task Force should write co Deans' Office, Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL

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