A recent news report gave us the alarming news that as a result of remote learning during the pandemic, some 200,000 students are expected to arrive at secondary school reading below expectations this September. According the Daily Telegraph, this has caused alarm bells in government and Boris Johnson is said to regard the problem as his greatest priority after the vaccine rollout.

More government attention to education, and to literacy in particular, sounds encouraging. The promise of ‘billions’ being targeted to address the problem chimes with the pleas teachers have been making for years. However, given the track record of various governments over many decades, and the recent track record of this government in particular, one could be forgiven for being cautious about how this plays out.

It turns out, for example, that the much-vaunted Covid catch-up fund has been subsidised by the DfE covertly clawing back a significant chunk of pupil premium spending. A large chunk of the catch-up fund has been set aside for tutoring, leading to lightly trained non-specialists working with the students who are struggling most – a recipe for much pain with limited gain. The current proposals likewise appear to rely on an ‘army’ of volunteers to deliver ‘catch-up’. Finally, exactly what is meant by ‘catch-up’ is unclear. In our view, ‘catch-up’ should mean catching up to the average level of one’s same-age peers – not just ‘making progress’.

There may also be a level of hyperbole in this talk of ‘crisis’, ‘armies’ and looming disaster. We are not given, for example, any evidence of the measures by which ‘catch-up tsar’ Sir Kevan Collins has determined these figures. Yes, many children will have done less reading practice during lockdown, and undoubtedly those who are reading significantly behind will still be behind. But given that every year, for decades, such children have been allowed to fail – and often blamed for it, while the school system was excused – why the concern now?

It may be that this announcement is merely a political move to show concern about education after the last chaotic year under the current Secretary of State for Education; it may also be an attempt to garner the votes and attention of anxious parents. No doubt in another year’s time, the realities will have become apparent. But, in the spirit of optimism, what if the government really did commit to eradicating illiteracy amongst school leavers? Apart from expressions of concern, what would it take? Here are four critical factors:

Expertise in assessment

Administering standardised tests does not tell us enough about individual students’ reading to be able to intervene effectively. The purpose of assessment is to work to what we need to teach students, not to label them with a syndrome or disability. Close assessment is a prerequisite for effective intervention.

Expertise in instruction

As Professor Louisa Moats has said, one key reason for systematic reading failure in English-speaking education systems is that ‘the difficulty of teaching reading has been underestimated.’ No amount of passion, ambition or concern can substitute for the technical skills required to select, communicate, revise and assess specific content, while also shaping motivation and coaching students into more effective reading behaviours.

Expertise in evaluation

Unless we can evaluate the impact of our work, we cannot know whether we are being effective or whether students are making sufficient progress. Support must be designed so that progress can monitored overall, as well as from day to day, and staff need to be committed to taking such evaluation seriously.

Expertise in leadership

Secondary schools are complex organisations managing many different priorities within limited resources. Support for struggling learners can be compromised, or entirely derailed, by other competing agendas. Strong, clear-eyed leadership is needed to balance priorities, protect teaching time, monitor teaching effectiveness and evaluate impact. Without such oversight from a senior level, attempts at rapid catch-up will struggle, and most likely fail.

Illiteracy is currently costing the UK economy about the same amount each year that we spend on the entire schools budget in England and Wales. If the government were to commit to developing professional expertise, and not merely appealing for volunteers to form an unskilled army (albeit with an admirable ‘blitz spirit’), illiteracy amongst school leavers could be eradicated in a few years. That is a slightly longer-term challenge, but it’s also a goal that really would be worth throwing a few billions at.


Dad’s Army 2016: CC: 2.0 @WEN.com

Dad’s Army (original series https://www.flickr.com/photos/durstan/15479353315)

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