All posts filed under: Education Policy

On Reading

In recognition of Dyslexia Awareness Month, we are re-sharing this post, originally written in 2014. Unfortunately, it is as true now as it was then.  What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god!­ – Hamlet   Nearly two centuries ago, a group of reform-minded individuals set out to transform the lives of people on the margins of Britain. They reported on their work in a book called Moral Statistics of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (1826), and this is what they said about their motivation in the introduction to that work: The mere art of reading, ought not, perhaps, in strictness, to be held as education; yet the power which this art confers, of applying to our own use the wisdom and knowledge of every age . . . . renders it alone the most effective instrument of moral improvement. Whether or not instruction in this …

International Literacy Day 2020

It’s International Literacy Day today, 8 September 2020. Literacy has, literally, never been so important. Around the world, UNESCO tells us, 773 million young people do not have access to the learning that will enable them to read and write. And yet, national and international policy declarations consistently emphasise the transformative power of literacy for individuals, families and societies. This impact is not just economic: it is also intellectual, cultural and at its heart political. Ultimately, literacy is about who is able to participate in political discourse, and who is excluded from that discourse. This short video provides some concise but powerful information about global literacy standards, and what needs to be done. As UNESCO succinctly put it, the current Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated a ‘gap between policy discourse and reality’. This gap between sentiment and practice can be found everywhere, including the UK. Here, we have an education system that pre-pandemic was resulting about 10-15% of school leavers being functionally illiterate. This is despite the science of how to teach reading being clear, both …

Teaching reading: it’s not as ‘niche’ as you think

“Teaching reading at secondary is very niche.” I’ve heard it said, in different ways, many times. It is a very common view, and it is also a mistaken one. Every teacher needs to know about reading because every student needs to read. In the ‘real world’, our students will need reading to deal with the mail, to follow the news, to sit their driver’s test, to decipher the instructions on a medicine bottle, to fill in employment forms, medical forms, tenancy agreements, mortgages, employment contracts . . . I don’t need to go on, do I? Reading is everywhere in our society. Despite early predictions, the growth of digital communication and social media has only increased the amount we are expected to read. And in school? From consulting their planner in form time, through French, science, history, geography . . . is there any subject where students don’t read? Traditionally, PE was stereotyped as the no-reading, no-writing subject. That was never quite true, but now the GCSEs in this subject require as much reading and …

The researchED Guide to Literacy

One of the many anomalies around literacy is the belief that reading, and its close companion writing, are ‘basic’ or ‘lower-order’ skills. This belief has had a number of pernicious effects. Many teachers, particularly those teaching older students, have assumed that literacy is ‘basic’ and therefore irrelevant to the ‘higher order’ skills with which they are concerned.  Because of this assumption that literacy is simple , the complexities of reading and writing have only been addressed superficially, or not at all, in teacher training. Thirdly, in the absence of good information, poor theory and damaging practice have prospered, blighting literally millions of lives. The researchED Guide to Literacy is subtitled An evidence-informed guide for teachers. The evidence concerned tells us is that literacy involves complex skills, that the benefits of literacy are immense, and that the consequences of poor literacy are pervasive, enduring and highly damaging. Reading becomes ever more important to independent learning as students progress through their education. It follows that understanding how we learn to read is essential to being able to …

The Stubborn Gap

The fight to close the disadvantage gap is far from over – but we mustn’t give up. This week sees the release of a report by the Fair Education Alliance in partnership with the Education Policy Institute. It is a ‘report card’ that gives a snapshot of the current state of UK education across early years, primary, secondary and further education, on a range of measures. The education sector can seem awash with such reports at times, but there are a number of headlines in this one to start alarm bells ringing. Here are a few of the key points raised: Poorer pupils in England are, on average, a year and a half behind their peers by the time they finish their GCSEs. Disadvantage gaps are larger, and are growing, in parts of the North. The most persistently disadvantaged pupils are almost 2 years (22.6 months) behind at the end of GCSEs – and that gap has increased since 2011. Post-16 education is becoming even more segregated, driven by an over-representation of disadvantaged students in …

Three styles of problem-solving

How leaders deal with problems determines  . . . well, everything. It’s an awkward truth that some leaders feel safest in a state of crisis. In a crisis, everyone is too preoccupied with how to cope to raise awkward questions about strategy, goals and long-term decisions; and because survival is the name of the game, everything is short term. Weathering crisis after crisis also fits the narrative of being selfless and burdened by others’ stress, which makes for a certain kind of reputation. Unfortunately, such a reputation is undeserved when the very same leader is largely responsible for the stress of colleagues, because they maintain the organisation in a state of perpetual crisis.  I once worked in a school where teachers were exhausted by constantly dealing with disruptive behaviour from students. The school leaders were more comfortable with this situation than sorting out the behaviour. They argued that teachers would be under threat from angry parents if we tightened up the standards and systems. It took a year of lobbying to get the changes in …

The Implementation Trap

When Ofsted review schools under the new category of Quality of Education, the Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, says that they will be looking at three areas: intention, implementation and impact. While it’s almost impossible to find a school that doesn’t proclaim laudable intentions, implementing such intentions successfully is quite another matter. Part of the difficulty is that many of our stated ambitions are aspirational: the intentions indicate a direction of travel, rather than a destination that all students will reach. One of the questions raised by the new approach to inspection is whether schools’ statements of intention are too lofty, and so the school can never meet the standards it has set itself. A second problem is that statements of intention have often been generalisations that were never expected to apply to all students. School leaders may well find that they have to be much more precise in specifying the types of outcomes they are aiming for, especially with groups who were previously at the margins of the school’s results. And then they have the …

Does it matter if some can’t read?

Although nearly everyone would subscribe to the ideal of universal literacy, there are plenty of pragmatists in education who believe that in reality, we must accept that a certain proportion of students will leave school illiterate to some degree – that is, reading well behind the norm for their chronological age. This is the result of the bell curve, they say – and after all, the cost of addressing the problem in terms of time and money is too high. Some children just aren’t going to get there. This certainly appears to be the way that the education system has worked to date. The National Literacy Trust estimates that there are six million functionally illiterate adults in the UK – that’s about ten per cent of the adult population. These people will have difficulty in understanding the instructions on a medicine bottle, have difficulty reading even a basic newspaper and struggle – usually unsuccessfully – to complete the theory test for a driver’s licence. Within this group (about a third of them) there is a …

A Valentine’s Day Letter – You Have Broken My Heart . . .

Dear Education We’ve had a long relationship and one that I, at least, was deeply committed to. We both cared deeply about helping every child to become literate – at least I thought you did too. But lately I’ve been doing some thinking, and I’ve come to the conclusion that this relationship isn’t working. Let me explain. The passion turned out to be superficial I heard a lot about passion, and how important it was to changing the lives of the children who needed the most help. But your sense of urgency keeps evaporating when it comes to making a real commitment. These children are still leaving school not being able to read properly. Maybe your passion was real at the time, but the lack of follow-through troubles me. You’re short-term, I’m long-term After a while I’ve realised that, for you, just doing ‘something about literacy’ seems to be sufficient. You want ‘quick wins’, but for me the best response to such problems is hard work and a long-term commitment. I guess I’m getting tired …

Allies and Friends

It takes a movement to conquer illiteracy. It was a tough decision.  Would I stay in my school, with my programme and my team, and enjoy seeing students succeed where they had previously failed? Or would I take the leap, strike out on my own to develop the programme and so enable many more children to leave school reading well? When I did make the leap, it proved to be even harder than I expected. First of all it required building an organisation from scratch, which is no mean feat.  Secondly, I quickly found that while many people sympathise with the cause of improving reading, few are willing to be its champions. I can say with some confidence that if it wasn’t for the support of allies and friends, I wouldn’t have made it this far. This post is about how important they are, and why they  too are worthy of support. We had our first breakthrough with Teach First: we applied for the 2015 Innovation Award and were one of the five winners. There are …