Education

Tackling the reading gap

Overworked teachers and dumbed-down libraries are behind Britain's shocking literacy levels.

English school children have crashed to the bottom of yet another education league table. When it comes to reading, less able 10-year-olds are a full seven years behind their brighter classmates. This attainment gap, highlighted in a report published by the charity Save the Children, is the second largest in Europe; only Romanian children demonstrate greater inequality in reading ability. In response, a number of charities, pressure groups and publishers have come together to launch ‘Read On. Get On.’, a campaign with the laudable and ambitious aim of getting all children not only reading, but reading well by 2025.

Much ink has been spilled despairing over the fact that some children, white working-class boys in particular, either can’t or don’t read enough, and as a result are falling behind their more privileged peers at school. There’s now a list of the usual suspects paraded by way of explanation for this problem:  poverty and parents are always to the fore. Some homes, it seems, do not strain under the weight of shelves crammed full of brightly coloured picture books and some parents don’t set aside 10 minutes a day to read with their children. The Save the Children report, subtitled ‘How reading can help children escape poverty’, rehashes all of these well-worn arguments.

It is no doubt easier, or at very least more appealing, to learn how to read if you are surrounded by beautiful books and have parents with plenty of time to sit and read with you. But neither parental input nor owning mounds of books are actually a prerequisite for learning how to read. We only have to go back a generation or two to recall a time when, for many families, both books and time were luxuries indeed. Yet, shocking though it may seem to some of today’s campaigners, many children who came from poor families, with few books and even less time, still learned how to read. Such children often had two wonderful inventions to thank for their success: schools and libraries. Teachers taught children how to read and libraries provided books and a quiet space in which to read.

Unfortunately, for today’s children, the purpose of both schools and libraries is no longer intrinsically connected to books and reading. Overworked teachers have a vastly expanded remit that encompasses responsibility for children’s social and moral development, physical health and emotional wellbeing, as well as knowledge about sex and relationships. Teaching reading is just one priority among many. The extent to which reading has been relativised can be seen in the way the word literacy has been stretched to cover financial, emotional and computer skills.

Actually, literacy just means being able to read and write, but the expansion of the term illustrates the way in which these basic skills have become over-complicated. The plethora of competing evidence of best-practice, combined with adherence to the demands of Ofsted inspectors, has all contributed to the de-professionalisation of teachers. Some teachers are overly concerned about damaging the self-esteem of emergent readers and stick to easier books rather than confidently pushing children on to more challenging texts. Low expectations are still endemic throughout the education system. In the same week as the Save the Children report hit the headlines, we also learnt from the OECD that three-quarters of UK university graduates do not have high levels of literacy. This means that children with lower levels of literacy have been rewarded throughout their school careers with exam passes and the privilege of a university place. Their inadequate reading skills are not challenged in higher education but instead furnished with a degree certificate.

Similarly, libraries today have de-prioritised books in favour of creating a socially inclusive and welcoming environment. Current orthodoxy has it that too many books in a library might be overwhelming or off-putting to children. It’s thought best to keep most of them hidden away to make room for brightly coloured bean bags and computers. Some schools and colleges have replaced libraries with ‘learning-resource centres’, the name change recognising the presence of more computers than books. In these new ‘centres’, talking, rather than quiet reading, is positively encouraged.

When schools are reluctant to teach reading and libraries are embarrassed about the presence of books, the home environment does take on far more importance and a social-class divide in reading ability is enhanced. The parents who fill their homes with books, sit and listen to their children read every night and, if all else fails, pay for private tuition, are indeed able to provide their children with the competitive edge. While schools and libraries could do much to close this attainment gap, the Save the Children campaign seems more focused on getting Blue Peter presenters and celebrities to help in recruiting a ‘grandparents’ army’ of volunteers to hear the nation’s children to read. This volunteer army is needed, according to the campaign, not just because books are a wonderful pleasure or a great means of finding out more about the world, but especially for the rather more mundane reason that reading encourages social mobility.

The irony of course is that no matter how well intentioned, ‘Read On. Get On.’ is unlikely to improve social mobility or lessen the attainment gap between the best and worst readers one jot. Volunteers and celebrities will never be as important as books, teachers and quiet spaces. We don’t need to discover the teacher in all of us to get children reading – we just need to re-discover the teacher in the classroom and the book in the library.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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