Boris Johnson · Centre for Policy Studies · literacy · Miriam Gross

So, why on earth can’t they read?

As soon as it hit the media the other day, Miriam Gross’s new report for the Centre for Policy Studies, ‘So why can’t they read’ sent one or two newspapers into a frenzy of breast beating, indignation and bewilderment over the scandalously high levels of illiteracy in London. In London? Well, the report is about illiteracy in London and you need to keep reminding yourself as you read it that, if the figures for London are so egregious, what are the figures like for the rest of the UK?
The foreword by Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, quotes many of the more alarming figures given by the report: in London alone there are ‘a million adults who cannot read’; ‘one in six working Londoners is functionally illiterate’ (if this is the figure for ‘working’ Londoners, what is it like for unemployed Londoners?); ‘twenty-five percent’ of children are leaving primary school ‘unable to read and write’. This is pretty much in line with the Moser Report in 1999 and the OECD statistics Canada survey of 1997, which found that between a quarter and a half of the adult population are functionally illiterate.
Boris is quite right: Miriam Gross ‘has performed a valuable public service’ in writing the document and bringing to our attention (again) the awful fact of decades of government failure to address this problem. The real question is: what do we do about it?
Gross places the blame for the decline in reading and writing on the poor quality of teaching, teachers having to fulfil endless government targets, the endless psycho-babble that goes on in PSHE, discovery learning and the lack of focus on basic skills. She also concludes that, even though it has been proved ‘beyond reasonable doubt that “phonics first and fast” is the most effective way for beginners to learn to read’, the reading wars (‘Phonics v Whole Language’) are still being fought out in English-speaking countries throughout the world.
Why then is this problem so persistent? Part of it seems to lie in the powerful myths surrounding the debate: that teaching phonics stifles children’s creativity and blights their development of a love of literature. Gross is under no such illusions: how can a child learn to love literature and be creative if they can’t read and write?
Nobody can pretend that there are easy solutions to this problem – if only because successive governments, local authorities, the teaching profession and the academic establishment have, in the past, been so unwilling to accept the research findings and act upon them. When I spoke to Nick Gibb, the (now) Schools Minister, at the House of Commons at the tail-end of last year, he told me that the Labour government had spent far too much time trying to micro-manage education and that a future Conservative government would not impose on schools an injunction to teach phonics. This seems sensible to me: teachers hate prescriptive directives. And Miriam Gross agrees. But an annual contest among primary schools to see which teaches reading best, which is what she is advocating? Never in a million years!
This government should resist the temptation to intervene in the way that the previous one did. That isn’t to say that they haven’t got an important part to play. Nick Gibb said that he was thinking about a voucher system that would offer funding for schools to train staff in how to teach phonics. Naturally, they would have to decide which phonics programmes they’d support. That’s one thing. Another major step they need to take is to fund research into what works – even though, as I’m sure Diane McGuinness would complain, we already have the answer to that question! – and into which phonics programmes are most effective. The third decisive step they need to take is to force the training institutions to teach trainee teachers how to teach reading and spelling.
As I’ve argued repeatedly, unless we teach children to become literate and numerate in the primary years, we will continue to see a high level of underachievement in our secondary schools.