The glib answer that many secondary schools would give is: because there is a reading problem in primary schools. Indeed, at the recent National Literacy Trust Conference, Ofsted repesentative HMI Gill Jones said that the the most important function of primary schools is to produce fluent readers. A short look at the statistics makes it apparent that this purpose is not being achieved. About 20% of students arrive at secondary school reading below the levels that they need in order to access the secondary curriculum (Sir Michael Wilshaw, March 2012). Clearly, there is something wrong in at least some primary schools. Jones suggested that it might be a lack of teacher knowledge about reading at levels higher than the early years.

But that does not let secondary schools off the hook. There is no excuse for a school to have a student with known reading problems failing for the entire five years – that is, at least 4,750 hours of instructional time – up to GCSE. Until lately, the relentless drive for more C grades has left students considered unlikely to gain a C to be ignored and then evicted from the education system at the end of their schooling, with few if any qualifications. What they do gain from their education, thoroughly and systematically taught by their experience of school, is that they are failures.  This most pernicious and cruel element of the education system has persisted despite years of so-called reform. What makes it especially cruel is that the problem is not the child; even people with intellectual disabilities can systematically be taught to read. The real problem is a lack of expertise in the teaching: a deficit masked by special education jargon, an endless list of manufactured ‘disabilities’, and cloying clouds of sympathy.

How many children’s educations, and lives, have been damaged through perpetually low expectations? The National Literacy Trust estimates the number of functionally illiterate people in the UK at 6 million. The annual social cost to the UK is estimated at £23 billion. The annual economic cost to the UK is estimated at £81 billion (London Evening Standard, January 2012). The scale of the problem is genuinely catastrophic – but in many secondary schools, teaching children to overcome problems with reading is a task left to those with some space in their timetables, funded by the dregs of the curriculum budget.

Pound coins

The new accountability measures in schools have the potential to make schools more accountable for how well they serve their most vulnerable students. It will be interesting to see how the profession adapts to this long-overdue challenge.

Post Script: We’re seeing some signs of progress with schools tackling this head on and making a real difference – transforming the lives of their once struggling readers. But, having done this research recently, we’ve seen that the reading problem hasn’t gone away.  There are still too many students arriving at secondary school with poor reading skills, leaving them unable to access the secondary curriculum. Is this situation being addressed in enough schools? Maybe schools don’t know where to start? Maybe they don’t think it’s possible? That it’s too late? Maybe they don’t know where to look for impartial advice? Or, maybe they’re refusing to acknowledge the extent, or even the very existence, of the problem?

You can find out more about working with us to develop a whole-school literacy strategy by visiting our website.

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