When I raised the matter with her teacher, I was told that she fell within the class spectrum and that I should lower my expectations. Fortunately for us, we spent the next school year in America, in a town that took literacy very seriously. There, she was identified as having a reading problem and offered a place on a support programme. This meant that for half a term, she went every day, for half a day, to a specialist reading centre. At the end of it, her reading problem had completely disappeared, as had the gap in attainment that had been growing between her and her peers. From this experience I realised the crucial need to address reading problems early when there is still a chance to close the attainment gap. I came back arguing for similar literacy programmes to be set up here, and was involved in the Early Intervention Scheme even before Brian Wilson (‘Intervention is the educated answer’, 5 March).
My most recent and final attempt to redress the problems of poor literacy was as a member of the government’s Standing Literacy Commission. This looked at literacy across the board, from the very early years and the family environment, through school and on into the adult population and prisons where the majority of inmates have poor literacy levels. The commission identified a number of projects that worked in the different areas, such as the addition of a literacy element to children’s 27 month health checks and tools to help P1 teachers identify children with reading problems.
We also identified a number of key themes: the importance of acting swiftly and robustly on assessment information in the interests of the child or person; the importance of commitment and sustained focus; and the importance of partnership-working both across the many education bodies and with the health and justice systems. All in all we made 13 recommendations, but come the day and the report got drowned out by the feedback from the 2015 Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy which showed that literacy levels in Scotland had fallen. The report got buried and instead Nicola Sturgeon announced her plans for compulsory, standardised literacy tests at various stages of school. This was a high profile, “I’m doing something important” announcement that was actually pointless. Indeed, the need by successive Education Ministers to make announcements, to be seen to be doing something, anything dramatic, is one reason why we continue to have a problem with literacy and the attainment gap. Over the years we have had endless initiatives, like Enterprise Education or the Two Plus One policy for teaching two foreign languages plus English/Scots in primary schools, all of which have served to push literacy down the agenda.
Another problem has been the “all must have prizes” approach within education which means it is very difficult to get people to focus on failure. I know how hard it is to be told “your child has a reading problem”, but that message becomes acceptable when it is followed by “and we have a very good programme for helping him/her”. And then there is the role of Education Scotland which is there primarily to ensure that government policy is implemented and rather less to offer any critical appraisal of that policy. This leads it to bang the drum for policy successes rather than to identify policy failures.
Redressing the attainment gap is a long, slow process. It does not lend itself to dramatic announcements or one-off solutions. It requires sustained effort and focus, but the rewards are great because every child that is helped to read becomes a literate adult who then, in turn, is able offer help and support to his/her own child. It is a multi-generational project but one that the government should properly commit to.
Findhorn Place, Edinburgh