One in five children leave primary school unable to read well enough
7th April 2005: Parliamentary Select Committee on Education examining the teaching of reading in primary schools publishes its report, highlighting the desperate problem of one in five eleven year olds being unable to read adequately.
Responding to the report, Stephen Twigg made one brilliant point and one dangerous one:
It is wonderful to hear the Government accept that some children need something different if they are to overcome reading problems, just as some people see clearly and some need spectacles. The next step is to accept that this 'something extra' (like Reading Recovery, the literacy equivalent of spectacles) costs a little extra, and schools need help paying for it. [source a]
BUT - Mr Twigg's comment that we must accept that some children are just not capable of making the grade is a dreadful backwards step, and risks undoing the most important achievement of the Literacy Strategy. Low expectations of children almost always become self fulfilling prophesies. Reading Recovery, which identifies the least able readers at the age of six and gives them intensive teaching, has proven time and again that children who were written off as unteachable can become successful, independent readers, with a better than average chance of reaching national literacy targets. Only this week I was talking with a Reading Recovery teacher whose pupils, once the lowest attaining in the year group, are now the best readers in the class. This isn't just a break-through for the individual children, but also for the school, because once you have seen children you assumed could not be taught to read, actually doing better than the average, no-one can be complacent about low standards.
We have the solution to most children's literacy problems. Reading Recovery has demonstrated that it can reduce the number of children failing to achieve appropriate levels of literacy by between half and three quarters, but hundreds of schools face cutting their RR programme this year, because the tiny amount of money* they received for special educational needs has been wiped out by two pressures on school budgets. 1) falling numbers of children, because schools are funded per pupil, so actual budgets are reduced and 2) the workforce agreement - which the government imposed but has not paid for - means schools have a 10% increase in their staffing costs to give teachers 10% non-contact time. In the face of these financial pressures, intensive teaching for the least able children falls off the agenda, so once again the most vulnerable children bear the burden of the government policies.
a) The Government made much of ?6million given to schools for special educational needs, but there are more than 17thousand primary schools, so each school received around ?350. So far, no-one has been able to identify a literacy intervention that lifts the lowest attaining children to average levels of literacy for ?350.
Regarding Phonics, our experience from observing struggling readers is that children are learning phonics - they know a lot of sound letter correspondences, but they don't know how to use those skills in reading and writing. It's a bit like knowing a lot of numbers, but not being able to do multiplication and division. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to these children's literacy problems, and to suggest that 'more phonics' is all that is needed suggests a simplistic and superficial response to a complex problem.
Source: The Institute of Education; Reading Recovery National Network.