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What a difference an hour makes

The radical step - for a secondary school - of devoting the first hour of every day to literacy is paying startling dividends, reports Hilary Wilce.

You are teaching in a secondary school, many of whose incoming pupils cannot read and write well enough to tackle the work you expect of them. Do you: a) weep and wail, and look for someone else to blame?

b) plough on with the curriculum, hoping something sticks?

c) give pupils a bit of extra help as and when you can?

d) tackle the literacy problem head-on?

Many schools face exactly this problem. Few do as Ash Green School, near Coventry, has just done - embarking on the last and toughest of these options.

Ash Green now begins each morning with "literacy hour", when all 170 of is new Year 7 pupils, whatever their ability, focus on reading and writing. The hour is sacrosanct. Nothing is allowed to encroach on it.

The decision was "a gamble", admits headteacher Jayne Wilson. It meant diverting resources, drumming up volunteers, pushing back the relentless demands of the national curriculum and selling what could have been a sensitive project to pupils, parents and staff. But just half-a-term into the project, the rewards are exceeding all expectations. Literacy levels are rising steadily - and in some cases leaping up - and pupil confidence is soaring.

"Of course there is some curriculum loss," says David Edwards, the deputy head, "but we feel we're more than making up for it in improved access to the curriculum and in the potential for future exam success."

At the heart of the project is the school library, a bright, sunny room which hums with activity first thing every morning as a group of 60 pupils is taught by a team of between 12 and 18 adults.

Students work in small groups: reading plays, playing word games, listening to tapes or reading aloud. Teachers, library and support staff are helped by parent and governor volun-teers, while senior citizens sit in corners to hear individual children read aloud.

It looks and feels like the liveliest primary class, partly because of these outside helpers, partly because many of these 11- and 12-year-olds, secure in small and unthreatening groups, with their own regular helpers, retain the openness and enthusiasm of younger children. The atmosphere of warmth and support is palpable, and many pupils say literacy hour is the best part of their day. They say they "feel better" about reading aloud, they've read "a lot more" books, and that it helps with other lessons and makes them feel "less bad" about themselves. If there are any complaints, they tend to be about missing PE.

These are the students who tested two years or more below their chronological reading age when they came to the school, but no one makes much of that. "Our aim is to target the whole year group," says Mr Edwards. "No one will be stigmatised."

During the year, the whole of Year 7 will rotate through the library, with higher-ability students being stretched by different tasks: reading and recording stories for younger children, and writing and editing a Year 7 newspaper.

Other classes also feel the impact of literacy hour, with all work being text-based. "Even if children are out on the pitches playing rugby they are handed parts to read, rather than given their instructions verbally," says David Edwards. "It's a bit contrived, and it means more work for the staff, altering their lessons, but I think any initial misgivings have been allayed by seeing the improvement in students."

That improvement is already showing up in test scores. All pupils were tested at the end of last summer, then again when they arrived at Ash Green, and the entire year group will be tested again in December. Meanwhile, re-testing of the 27 pupils who fell below a reading age of nine at the beginning of the year showed that in just seven weeks 13 of them had already moved above the reading age of nine.

On average, they improved their reading age by a year, with one student moving up three years. At a recent literacy evening, three students who had been struggling with basic skills read confidently to a group of 100 parents.

The original idea came from a team of English, library and special needs staff who put forward "A Modest Proposal" to boost reading and writing in the school. The senior management team then decided that if it was worth doing at all, it was worth doing much less modestly. They put a radical proposition to the governors who were also worrying about student abilities.

"We'd all been singing from the same hymn sheet, but different verses, " says Jayne Wilson, "So we were able to pull it all together."

The school has spent Pounds 2,000 on books, tapes and games for the project, choosing materials to suit and stimulate the age group. Horror is popular, as are non-fiction books about fishing, football and stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Every morning some half a dozen volunteers join the English, library and support staff in the library, and more are being sought.

One such volunteer is Pat Howard who has two children, one at the school, is on the school parent-teachers' association, and has an evening job at a bank. This morning she can be heard coaxing her young charge: "Now there's something at the end of that sentence - that's right, an exclamation mark. That makes it different, so read it again."

Pat says she has always helped out in her children's other schools so it seemed natural to volunteer for this. "Initially I would worry about doing the right thing. But you can always go to one of the teachers and say: 'Is it all right if I do this with them?' " Monica Coles, a school governor who comes in two mornings a week, has seen great improvements among her group and is convinced of the importance of the project. "We expect them to start reading French and German at this age, but they can't even read their own language, " she says. "It doesn't make any sense at all."

All the tutors emphasise the crucial role of reading aloud. "Reading one-to-one is a great motivator," says Mr Edwards. "Yet in the normal course of teaching the opportunity to sit down and hear a student read aloud is minimal. "

Ash Green serves Bedworth, the town with the highest unemployment in Warwickshire, and has an ability range skewed to the lower end. Fifty per cent of this year's Year 7 are on the special needs register. At one time, rolls were plummeting and the school was threatened with closure, yet over the past four years pupil numbers have risen from 400 to 760.

Local organisation, eliminating middle schools and transferring Year 7 to secondary schools, has also helped create a climate in which innovations at this level can be tried.

In developing the project, the school has gone out of its way neither to point the finger at its feeder schools, nor give parents the message that their children are not up to the mark. "There are all kinds of issues for us as a society about why reading isn't emphasised these days," says Jayne Wilson, "It isn't only what goes on in the classroom. Nowadays you don't need to read a newspaper to get the news, and if both parents are working there isn't time to hear children read at home.

"We've become very skilled visually but reading has rather gone by the board, especially as everyone knows the curriculum at key stage 2 is so overloaded. "

The school works closely with its feeder primary schools to ensure a continuity of approach when children change schools, and ideas about reading methods and resources are exchanged up and down the system.

Yet one big question remains. Governor Monica Coles speaks for many when she asks: "But why isn't it done before they come to us? They used to be able to do it. Why isn't it done now?"

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