Zero tolerance on illiteracy

4th December 2009 at 00:00
New report lays out recommendations on how to become `world's first fully-literate nation'

Scotland can become the world's first fully-literate nation by declaring zero tolerance on illiteracy according to a "visionary" plan published today.

The Labour Party has already promised to take on the formidable challenge, and experts have thrown down the gauntlet to the Scottish Government.

But the same experts believe a huge hurdle lies ahead: a glaring social divide that makes illiteracy far more prevalent among children in poor areas.

The report, by the Literacy Commission, warns that prompt action is crucial since international evidence suggests Scotland is falling behind other countries.

The commission estimates that almost one million people, or one in five Scots, have problems with literacy in everyday life. It backs standardised literacy tests across Scotland and intervention long before children arrive at school.

Convener Judith Gillespie said the 11 recommendations, if met, would "place us in the enviable position of being the developed world's first fully-literate nation".

Labour leader Iain Gray, whose party commissioned the report last year, promised to pursue the key findings "relentlessly". He added: "I pledge Scottish Labour to the task of eradicating illiteracy and innumeracy from 21st-century Scotland."

The psychologist behind the celebrated 10-year project that claims to have eradicated illiteracy among West Dunbartonshire school leavers, commission member Tommy MacKay, recalled a 1997 TESS headline spelling out the authority's ambitious target. He hopes for a similar headline stating the Government's intention to wipe out illiteracy among all school leavers by 2020. The first and "most crucial" step was to make a national declaration.

"Scotland has the opportunity to do something that has not been done in the world before," Professor MacKay said. "To eradicate illiteracy among school leavers is not only visionary, it is achievable."

The commission's recommendations build on the premise that "socio-economic issues are the main underlying cause" of poor basic literacy.

Alarmingly, "there is no instance in Scotland of a school serving a poor neighbourhood and achieving results comparable to those of schools in more affluent areas", it states.

An estimated 18.5 per cent of pupils leave primary school without "functional literacy", but the figure varies between 10 and 26 per cent across the country.

The first recommendation demands a national commitment to "zero tolerance of illiteracy", after successive governments' inconsistent approaches hampered previous efforts.

A focus on the early years is said to be crucial, including trials of "continuous and systematic support" for families in poor areas with children aged up to three, similar to pioneering work in Reggio Emilia, Italy. The report, which draws from several independent experts, calls for a national strategy to go beyond the basics and build "higher-order literacy" skills.

It stresses, however, that every school should devise a local literacy plan, including a "highly-structured phonics programme", as the best projects included "maximum input" from teachers.

Read and download the Literacy Commission's full report


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