Sunday, 18 March 2012

Declining levels of literacy threaten our future.

Levels of literacy amongst pupils leaving primary school in England have fallen sharply in recent years according to chief inspector of schools Michael Wilshaw. Reading standards showed steady improvement from 1995 to 2005, now though many pupils are going to secondary school without the skills they need to cope with the curriculum.

Speaking to the BBC this week Michael Wilshaw emphasised the link between literacy and academic success, saying, ‘our concern is that too many pupils fall behind in their literacy early on, in most cases if they can’t read at seven they struggle to catch up through their school career.’ As a result many of these students ‘find it difficult to access the curriculum’ and as adults ‘lack the functional skills to make their way in the modern world. They are more likely to be unemployed, unwell or supported by the state.’

In future OFSTEAD, the body that inspects schools in England, would, he said, focus ‘more sharply’ on monitoring how literacy is taught.

The reaction from the unions representing teachers to Michael Wilshaw’s comments was swift and somewhat defensive.

Chris Keates of the NASUWT said the ‘critical importance’ literacy to overall academic success was ‘beyond dispute’. However she challenged the figures cited by OFSTEAD saying the number of students reaching the required standard of literacy at eleven and later at GCSE had in fact risen since the 1990’s. It was right, she said, for OFSTEAD to ‘monitor provision in this vital subject’; but that it should not pick and choose the evidence it uses in order to support a ‘predetermined view.’

Mary Boustead of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said that national tests were narrowing the curriculum and suggested this ‘may well be one of the major causes why children at primary school who’ve had an overemphasis on test items can’t access the secondary curriculum.’

Teachers have many justified reasons to feel antagonistic towards OFSTEAD and the government from an inspection regime that sometimes seems more interested in ticking boxes than improving delivery to the ever more fanciful ideas for what schools should teach dreamed up by the ambitious Michael Gove.

Then there is the small matter of the plan mooted this week to pay teachers, and other public servants, working in areas deemed to be poor less than those working in wealthy areas on the grounds that their cost of living is much lower. All of which sounds very sensible until you consider the not unlikely possibility of someone living in an area with a high cost of living but working in a ‘poor’ area. Perhaps whoever dreamed up this latest exercise in unfairness genuinely believes that all house masters live in cottages provided by the school and have a rosy cheeked wife on hand to provide bump suppers at a moments notice too.

The one area though where there cannot be room for dissent is when it comes to the importance of making sure every child leaves primary school not just able to read fluently, but that they read for pleasure too. Low levels of literacy are a disaster in waiting for the economy, inhibiting the development of new industries that could bring lasting prosperity.

Being able to read isn’t just about academic success, a skill to be drilled into the unwilling heads of students, it is one of the things that makes a person whole, shows him or her worlds and ways of life beyond their narrow personal experience and encourages empathy and tolerance. In short it is through learning the mechanics of literacy and the world books open up to us that we become civilised.

Instead of a dreary and mostly self serving argument between the government and the teaching unions over statistics what we need is a mature agreement that the problem of illiteracy needs to be addressed as a priority.

The government has to invest in good quality literacy teaching for both children and adults, a child who struggles to read often have parents with literacy problems of their own. It might be a good idea too to think about opening rather than closing public libraries, especially in disadvantaged areas where families struggling to survive on ever shrinking budgets can’t afford to buy books for their kids. Most of all the government must set teachers free of their bureaucratic shackles and let them get on with what they do best.

For its part the teaching profession will have to overcome its antipathy to synthetic phonics, as a means of teaching reading it isn’t a panacea, but those of us who learnt by that method in the 1970’s know from experience that it if often highly effective. There needs also to be a more structured and even, dare I say it, competitive atmosphere in classrooms; not least because this will help boys to focus and make use of the energy they otherwise expend on misbehaving.

Literacy is too important, bestows too many lifelong gifts that can illuminate otherwise troubled lives for anyone to miss out due to bad teaching and government interference.

And the winner is…..Paddington

Paddington Bear, the marmalade sandwich chomping creation of Michael Bond has been crowned as Britain’s best loved animated character at the British Animation Awards, beating off the likes of Super Ted, Wallace and Gromit and Alexandr Meerkat.

An awards ceremony for cartoon characters; that’s got to be more fun than the dreary old Oscars don’t you think?

I can just imagine Bagpuss snarling ****oles through a fixed grin as the mice on the mouse organ troop up to collect their prize and Super Ted (surely you’d have to be forty at least to even know who he was) sulking at the bar because he’s still big it’s the cartoon that have gotten small.

As for weepy podium speeches that seem to go on forever I’m sure the bear of the moment would fix the blubbering A lister with one of his famous ‘hard stares.’

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