Katie Ivens · London Evening Standard · Real action

Illiteracy in London secondary schools? It’s Standard practice.

Today, yet again we see a London newspaper highlighting yet another attempt to put a tiny piece of sticking plaster on what seems to be the ever festering sore of illiteracy in schools.

The London Evening Standard reports that university students are being sent in to five London secondary schools to provide ‘urgent’ help for secondary pupils who can’t read and write to a level that will enable them to cope with the secondary curriculum.

Five London secondary schools are taking part in a £458,000 ‘pilot programme’ to help catch up the estimated three hundred pupils needing this kind of support. This, of course, could be only the tip of the iceberg because it is reckoned that between ‘70 and 100 per cent’ of pupils entering these secondaries have reading ages below ten years.

Of course, this is nothing new. We’ve known about it for years and I’ve been writing about it ever since I began this blog. Why? Because it is a common occurrence for secondary teachers and teaching assistants arriving on our courses to tell that this is exactly the kind of thing they are faced with every year. We know this because, as soon as pupils arrive at secondary school, a screening process takes place in which decisions are made about which pupils will need specialised help in reading. The truth is that only the most needy, in other words, those with such low reading abilities that they can barely function at all can be given help. This is because there are so many pupils with reading ages below their chronological ages. Sixty and seventy per cent are the kinds of figures regularly quoted.

For me, the first question that springs to mind is: what the hell is not going on in the feeder primary schools that is causing so many pupils to leave without the ability to read or write properly?

As Katie Ivens, leader of the charity Real Action, which is running the project, makes clear in the article, illiteracy blights opportunities for these young people. It also creates huge problems for secondary teachers who have to cope with pupils in their classes who can’t read from fairly simple textbooks, never mind make notes or write down their thoughts on paper.

The second question is: why is nearly half a million pounds being spent on trying to rectify a problem by the time it reaches secondary school level instead of going to the root cause: the primary schools that are failing to teach these pupils to read and write.

For the kind of money being spent, Sounds-Write could easily train well over a thousand primary teachers on our four-day intensive and highly specialised courses and in so doing easily prevent this kind of thing happening in the first place.
Time to get out those grapes again, though this time I’m thinking that instead of Cato’s warning we should instead be thinking about Steinbeck and getting good and mad!

5 thoughts on “Illiteracy in London secondary schools? It’s Standard practice.

  1. John – we need both. The Butterfly Project is very effective, cost-effective and easy to replicate -an important factor considering the large turn-over of staff in schools. Ruth Miskin's schools, Jolly Phonics schools in London also get excellent results. That said, Sounds Write is a Rolls Royce training programme – and millions would be saved if linguistic phonics training were to be made widely available by the government.
    My main gripe is that children are not taught SP/linguistic phonics with sufficient rigour in the early years and that the habit of 'real' reading, with all the richness of childrens' literature, is denied to many.
    Oxford's solution for 7- year- old failing children, for instance, is a disgrace: poverty of language, ideas and failed mixed-strategy teaching are Oxford's solution – costing millions.
    Geraldine Carter

  2. Thanks for your comment, Geraldine.
    I didn't actually say or imply that I thought the only answer is S-W. Good on Katie Ivens for taking the initiative! It should also be noted that she is a vice-chairperson of the Campaign for Real Education.
    However, I do believe that sounds-to-print approaches are far more effective than print-to-sound ones.
    I think we have the data to prove it and I don't see that anyone else has produced data on as many pupils (1,607) as we have and over the whole of KS1.
    I would just love it if someone, which obvious couldn't be us, would set up some randomised tests so that we could see which phonics programmes perform best.
    As for your other remarks, I couldn't agree more.
    Best regards,

  3. Hi John, Alison here from Spelfabet in Australia, I agree that from a bang-for-the-government's-buck point of view, an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure, but it's also great to hear that someone there is trying to do something systematic to tackle the left-behind teenagers. I work in both elementary and secondary schools, and Australia is if anything miles behind the UK, as our government still hasn't come out and told early literacy teachers "do synthetic phonics" like yours has, and we don't have multiple people actively agitating for change and providing good training and materials. It's hard to work out which bit of the edifice to put pressure on – research matters, and I'd love someone to put my materials through the randomised-controlled-trial wringer too, but ultimately I think change will happen when parents demand it and teachers are equipped to deliver it. How to get those two things to happen is something I wonder about every day, as I suppose you do too.

  4. Hi Alison and thanks for your comment.
    I agree: we have to walk on both feet. We need to tackle the problem of illiteracy as well as we can before it develops. On the other hand, where the problem has firmly established itself, we need to provide a means for catching up those who have fallen behind.
    For my part, although I do think you can train literate people – in the case of the London experiment, undergraduates – to teach children (and also adults) to read, I don't believe they can do this without proper training.
    As I'm not in a position to know exactly what the London training entails, I can't comment. However, I think that it takes at least four days of intensive training to teach teachers or teaching assistants to be able to go back into their workplaces and hit the ground running. And, even then, some of them are so imbued with ideas and practices that run counter to what, in my opinion, a good quality phonics programme looks like, they do nothing like as well as I would expect.
    Like you, I'd give my eye teeth (I have still got some!) to have our programme subjected to a randomised control trial. The trouble is that, unless universities are willing to invest in the research, I don't think we're going to get very far because it's clear that that government isn't interested, for reasons Ben Goldacre gives in his paper http://www.badscience.net/2013/03/heres-my-paper-on-evidence-and-teaching-for-the-education-minister/.

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