Time to start all over again

Graham Frater believes that politicians must share the responsibility for poor literacy teaching and its consequences

Whenever education is debated before an election, literacy seems to be in vogue. This apparent consensus on a key issue - if not the means to the end - suggests that we might at last get something like a National Reading Project.

It would be an appropriate, though much-delayed, sequel to the National Oracy and Writing Projects, both of which ended in the early Nineties.

For most of this century standards seem to have risen; but the evidence submitted to the National Commission on Education suggests that achievements in literacy have remained largely static for the past 30 years or so.

Any effective policy for literacy will need to draw upon the lessons of this period. Those lessons lie in the inadequacy of quick fixes, short-termism and rapidly moving goal-posts. Clarity, coherence, continuity and well-directed cash have been at a premium for far too long.

Making a good start is perhaps the most important area to be clear about. Reception pupils differ sharply in the experiences and achievements in language with which they start school. For a significant minority, the gap is not bridged. Less well-prepared for initial reading than most of their peers, they start slowly, do less reading and make slower progress. Meanwhile, more advantaged children start effectively, enjoy their early reading, do more of it and - at an increasing rate - get better at it.

Not only do the differences widen, they endure. A recent report to the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority showed a clear link "between reading difficulties in the primary school and subsequently poor employment history in early adult life". Indeed, the Basic Skills Agency has reported that not only is there a connection between insecure literacy and insecure and unskilled employment, there is "a clear, but poorly-researched link between poor literacy and crime".

Policy-making has not failed to notice the importance of nursery education and early intervention. But dogma and discontinuity have vitiated their delivery. Nursery vouchers are a bureaucratic and uncertain means of securing a sound objective. And Reading Recovery, delivered in the infant school to children who are making a poor start, was courted by some recent ministers only to be disavowed by others. Now adopted in many English-speaking countries, Reading Recovery is probably the most widely and favourably evaluated scheme of intervention anywhere. And Professor Barrie Wade has recently shown that its benefits last (see News, page 2). Yet the scheme is not financed securely in the UK.

In its home country of New Zealand, by contrast, Reading Recovery is offered to just over 20 per cent of children between the ages of six and seven. The figure suggests the scale of a need which, having started down the road, our policy-makers have failed to address decisively or consistently. It may be argued that Reading Recovery is costly, at Pounds 700 to Pounds 1,000 per child; but it also has a success rate of around 80 per cent in the disadvantaged areas in which it has been used in the UK. In New Zealand, where it is universal, the success rate is over 90 per cent. Both for the individual and for the community at large, these early costs are trivial compared with the social costs of prolonged problem literacy. Moreover, though I have no wish to press the link between poor literacy and crime, when I last enquired, the average annual cost of maintaining an inmate in HM Prisons was more than Pounds 20,000, rising to around Pounds 60,000 for those institutions such as Parkhurst.

Pump-priming, challenge funding, single regeneration budgets and short-term grants - much favoured Treasury instruments - must be about the most blinkered and least effective means of raising achievements in literacy. They commonly depend upon competitive bidding, that is upon excluding some, and occasionally most, of the bidders. They frequently rely too upon the bidder finding the cash to carry on with the project when the central funding ends. Not to provide for continuity is a matter of principle. It is a system which guarantees that a complex, widespread, and perhaps increasing problem, will be addressed incoherently.

As for the secondary school: by the time the poor readers arrive, bad habits have become ingrained and attitudes have often deteriorated. This alone reinforces the argument for early intervention. The secondary curriculum does not teach initial literacy; not unreasonably, it relies upon soundly acquired basic skills and goes on to pose new linguistic challenges to all pupils.

The poor reader entering the secondary school must face the severest challenge of all. Handicapped by weak literacy, he (usually) must improve his basic skills while also keeping up with new lessons and with their increasing demands on his old weakness. Moreover, the most common means by which he is offered help may prolong his difficulties. Typically, a special helper accompanies the poor reader to a number of mainstream lessons each week. It is an essentially contingent process: it deals with the problems that emerge during subject teaching; it seldom amounts to a coherent or intensive address to his specific difficulties. Though it helps the student to experience the curriculum alongside his peers, it is a model that promotes dependence in place of independence.

This incoherent procedure is rooted firmly in recent legislation. Reflecting this exactly, Ofsted insists that pupils' access to the national curriculum should not be compromised by their withdrawal for additional support for any learning difficulties. Yet effective and well-researched interventions, such as Reading Recovery and Family Literacy, work on sharply contrasting principles. Where in-class support is typically long-term, contingent and diffuse, these interventions are intensive, time-limited and involve some withdrawal from ordinary teaching.

Reading Recovery offers skilled one-to-one help for half an hour every day. Its successes carry clear messages for what is also needed to give the older problem reader a second chance. The teaching is not only individual, it is highly structured, diagnostic, and intensive. None of these positive features can be replicated by in-class support.

However right it was to introduce the national curriculum, the code of practice and so on, the support structures to deliver the intended improvements coherently, consistently and continuously were neglected. Two concluding examples will suffice. Effort and resources have been massively misdirected into fattening the educational pig by weighing it. National assessments and cyclical inspection have diverted resources from the classroom.

Finally, a recent survey has discovered that few teachers have been well prepared for teaching the increased element of grammar on which students will soon be tested in key stage 3. The cause lies flatly at the door of politicians. Following the 1988 Kingman Report on the teaching of English, a national programme of in-service training (Language in the National Curriculum) was introduced, but not maintained. At greater cost, it must all be done again.

Graham Frater, formerly HMI staff inspector for English, is a freelance inspector and consultant.

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