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2 April 1999

How to banish illiteracy

One reading scheme has a clear record of success. But Francis Beckettfears that ministers won't pay

By Francis Beckett

Last week, in a blaze of publicity, a report from Sir Claus Moser revealed startlingly high levels of illiteracy in Britain. And in a secret corner of Whitehall, entirely unnoticed, a meeting took place which just might prevent us from raising yet another illiterate generation – but only if ministers grasp the nettle and spend some real money.

More than one in 20 adults struggle to read the shortest and simplest of sentences. Another one in eight has the reading skill of an average 11-year-old, and struggles to absorb even the pulped-up, pre-digested material provided by tabloid newspapers.

You have to catch the problem when a child is young. After the age of six, it becomes harder to cure with each passing year. If it is not cured before the age of 11, then more often than not it is never cured. A former schools inspector, Graham Frater, writes in the magazine Education 3-13 that in the first two years of secondary school “the pupil who has reading difficulties . . . must catch up and must keep up. And he must do both at exactly the point when, at a faster rate than he has experienced before, the curriculum makes new demands on his old difficulties.”

So far the government’s response has been the National Literacy Strategy, of which the cornerstone is the literacy hour. There is much to be said for it. It ensures that a greater proportion of primary school time goes into literacy, and provides a structure for teaching it. But it is not the cure. As Frater puts it, “if the evidence is so clear that later intervention is largely ineffective, then early help had better be offered as a matter of urgent national policy. The NLS offers no sure prospect of such necessary provision.”

In fact, the literacy hour makes early intervention with reading less likely, because the rubric insists that, for part of the time, children must be taught as a whole class and that every child must then be present. The classroom assistant, who could take the non-readers aside for special help, must instead sit tight and watch the teacher.

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The strategy should be successful in preventing reading difficulties that are the consequence of poor teaching. Politicians like to blame teachers for everything that goes wrong in education, but it is extremely unlikely that poor teaching is the cause of most reading difficulties. The strategy seems likely also to improve the overall standard of literacy. But it will not make much difference to those who have serious reading problems. If the government leaves it at that, then in 20 years’ time a new generation will have all the problems of adult illiteracy that we see today.

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Last week it started to look as though the head of the government’s Standards and Effectiveness Unit, Michael Barber, knows what is wrong and plans to do something about it. His team invited Angela Hobsbawm and her colleagues from the reading recovery co-ordinating team at London’s Institute of Education for a talk.

Reading recovery, like several good educational ideas, came from New Zealand. It detects reading difficulties at the age of six. Any child having trouble gets half an hour, on his or her own, every day for up to 20 weeks from a specially trained teacher.

This makes it very expensive. And the money has to go, not on computers (which politicians seem to like spending money on) but on people, and specialist training for those people (which politicians hate spending money on).

Politicians are torn. They want the credit for introducing something that really will make a difference to illiteracy. But they do not want the odium that comes with spending money. The Tories announced a £10 million three-year trial in 20 inner-city local education authorities during the 1992 election campaign because they had heard that Labour was planning a similar move.

The scheme brought more than half of the poorest readers up to the average level of their class. The rest improved substantially. In 1996, however, when the three years were up, there was no election campaign in progress. Ministers claimed that the money had been “pump priming” and now it was up to local education authorities. “Market forces must provide,” they told the reading recovery tutors primly.

Market forces have done no such thing. Local education authorities get shorter of money every year. Only a few still fund reading recovery, and then only for some schools. More than half the reading recovery teachers we have trained are not doing reading recovery work.

David Blunkett wants reading recovery, but is frightened by the cost. The National Literacy Strategy documents state that reading recovery is to be “kept under review with the aim of refining it over time and seeing if its outcomes can be achieved more cost effectively”. These are weasel words. They mean: find something cheaper. But cheap won’t work.

It may be that Blunkett is at last going to accept that. There will be a decision of some sort by September; Hobsbawm and her colleagues have to provide the government with more data (though you might reasonably think it already has enough). Blunkett may try to confine it to complete non-readers, and leave out those simply struggling. That would reduce the cost, but also the effectiveness. In New Zealand, reading recovery is national and targets one in five six year olds.

Blunkett is also apparently certain, against most of the evidence, that the National Literacy Strategy will dramatically reduce the number of children who need reading recovery. And there are still some cheaper, and less effective, methods he intends to consider, which is probably why Barber has written ominously of how “reading recovery approaches will be piloted”. “Approaches” is another weasel word and it should fill us with misgivings.