First Thing

By | 4 October 2007

Here’s the good news: all primary children will have one-to-one tuition to make sure they can all read by the time they leave primary school.
Brilliant. Secondary teaching will become an absolute doddle. Say, “turn to page 12”, and the whole class will be right there with you, getting every word.
The democratisation of secondary learning, with mixed ability rather than streamed or set classes, carefully graduated from super bright to “oh dear me!”, was founded upon the assumption that at least all children were reasonably competent readers.
It surely foundered on the fact that it was not so. And sadly, if a child arrived in secondary school with a reading age less than, say, eight, there was very little chance to catch up.
Training to lecture in further education, I was shocked on my first teaching practice English class to find 16-year-olds who could neither read nor write. “What have they been doing in secondary schools for five years?” I spluttered at my tutor.
He shrugged. “Ask the secondaries, they blame the primaries; speak to the primary schools and they blame the nurseries; go to the nurseries, and they will say, ‘have you met the parents?’ – no one takes responsibility.”
Of course, secondary schools are filled with subject specialists who take for granted a fast fluency with words on a page. Secondary English teachers are trying to cover a novel in a term, or Romeo and Juliet, or how to deliver a speech like Gordon Brown. They have no time to teach anyone how to read in the most literal sense.
And how could it possibly be the responsibility of a physics or French teacher, or a historian?
And was it not reasonable to expect children to learn to read in primary schools? Isn’t that what they are for? To produce children who can read and write and do enough arithmetic to be able to hold up their heads – or their hands – in secondary mathematics lessons? I think there was a time when we believed that.
Friends who went to teacher training college when I was a student drew a line between me and them: I trained to teach my subject, they trained to teach children. We all knew that meant reading and writing first, anything else was a bonus.
Actually, my experience on teaching practice suggests it did not work even then, and adult literacy classes have since been filled with people in their fifties who never learned to read. Perhaps there never was a “golden age” of literacy in primary schools.
But the chances of learning to read must have gone through the floor when primary schools adopted all the secondary subjects. A nature afternoon grew into full-blown science with SATs to test it. Spellings and comprehensions in English gave way to Macbeth. It may have been a more interesting diet, but still we are told a third of our children leave primary school unable to read or write at the level expected of an 11-year-old.
It is a bit like letting drivers who have failed their test join the motorway regardless. “They’re the right age, they should be able to drive – it’s a pity they can’t, and some of them will get killed, might even kill a few others en route, but there you go, you can’t hold them back, can you?”
Some of them do get “killed”, by a secondary curriculum to which they have little or no access. No wonder they are bored, as was reported of substantial numbers last week. Being forced to continue where they palpably cannot do what is demanded of them, they collapse out of the system with no qualifications at all. And the disruption they will cause in many classes (teachers needing microphones now to be heard above rowdy classes?) “kills” other learners’ chances of a decent education.
It is absolutely wonderful news that the government intends to put a stop to this carnage: every child will leave primary school able to read. I will stop muttering about how a government that has been in power 10 years has woken up to this a bit late; and how children should never have been leaving primary schools unable to read in the first place, and heads should have rolled if they did.
I’ll even stop asking who will be the ones doing this one-to-one-ing, and what will the teacher do while that is going on, and how can it possibly be affordable.
Instead, I shall cheer. Perhaps even three times

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