If some can’t read, the school is failing.
In many secondary schools, the highest priorities are the headline performance tables, such as the 5ACEM and the new ‘Progress 8’. This is understandable, given the relentless pressure on schools to improve results. Remarkably, there is little pressure by the government to improve children’s reading. Progress in this area is presumably meant to be implied by the headline measures. In reality, it is possible for a school to have good 5 A* – C including English and Maths and still have scores of students in the same cohort unable to read and write properly. It is a reality I have witnessed.
The American Federation of Teachers makes an explicit statement about priorities: “Teaching children to read is the most fundamental responsibility of schools.” Although health and safety might be seen as even more fundamental, schools do not exist in order to provide health and safety. They provide health and safety because children are entrusted to them to learn – and the most important skill they need for learning is reading. Reading ensures curriculum access, releasing children to use their intelligence. Fluent reading brings comprehension, curiosity and enjoyment. Weak reading brings frustration, embarrassment and a host of disruptive behaviours designed to escape from the reading task or to divert attention away from the real problem. Good readers do better all round: they are more independent learners. They are likely to gain better grades and to make more levels of progress.
It would be helpful, therefore, if the government introduced a measure of performance related to students’ reading skills by the end of Key Stage Three. This would ensure that schools did more to help students before they reached the high-stakes assessments of Key Stage 4. If schools already have good readers, then they need do little different: if they have a number of poor readers, then the performance measure might give them an incentive to address the problem before time runs out for the students concerned.
I would suggest that there are several simple ways to check whether reading is a real priority, rather than just given lip service.
- First, is there a member of SLT who is directly responsible for leading on literacy and overseeing the impact of literacy interventions? If not, the task has probably been devolved to a middle manager who will not have sufficient ‘clout’ to do the job when staff do not co-operate.
- Secondly, are all students screened to check their reading? If there is not a comprehensive system for ensuring students do not ‘fall through the cracks’ then reading is not important enough in the school’s organisational plan.
- Thirdly, is there a policy statement on reading that acknowledges its primacy to learning at secondary school? In other words, does the school admit that the skill of reading is more important than any single subject?
- Fourthly, are interventions selected on the basis of evidence and evaluated for effectiveness? Or is there a culture of going through the motions, with little expectation of radically improved outcomes?
The kind of rich education that we all seem to want for our students will not happen solely as a result of curriculum changes. It will also require a fundamental shift in the quality of reading instruction we give to those students who have been under-served by the education system to which they have been entrusted.
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