Getting On

Posted in : Stevenson's Education Updates on 6 April 2016

I was in St. George’s market on Saturday morning recently and stood for a while reading the Ulster-themed slogans on the T shirts, cards and mugs at one of the stalls. You know the ones: ‘What’s the craic?’ and ‘Wind yer neck in!’ and everybody’s’ favourite, ‘Keep ‘er lit!’ A young foreign couple came up beside me and puzzled over the merchandise. They had difficulty interpreting the sayings even though their English was good. To my horror they asked me to translate for them and in particular to explain the meaning of the phrase ‘Yer bum’s a plum!’ I think I stammered something unconvincing about being ‘an eejit’ or ‘mistaken’ or words to that effect.

So, being able to read (in any language) is an important skill and according to Save the Children ‘Being able to read well is key to a child’s future. It means they’re more likely to do well in school and in their working lives. It’s also one of the best routes out of poverty’. That quote is taken from the preamble to their on-line petition ‘Read On. Get On. In Northern Ireland.’ which I signed recently. Save the Children is currently running a campaign in each of the constituent countries of the UK to highlight the importance of reading and reading well to children’s futures and has launched petitions to get people to back their calls for political action. The exact nature of their demands varies across the different constituencies but the overall message is the same.

Statistical data are given to emphasise their case, with the headline being that in Northern Ireland today one in five children leaves primary school not reading well. The point is made that this stops thousands of our poorest children from fulfilling their potential. The aim of the campaign and the focus of the petition is to ask all political parties to make it a key part of their education policy to get all children reading well. It is estimated if reading does not improve that by 2025, over 62,000 children in Northern Ireland will have left primary school unable to read well. A similar picture is painted for England and Scotland with the situation in Wales apparently even worse.

I confess that I am somewhat shaken by these figures and the picture they are painting and feel more than a little foolish for not being as aware of the situation as I might have been. Literacy, or the lack of it, I had prejudicially assumed was primarily a problem for the developing world and of course realistically it is. However, it is clear that in the 21st century, in developed and supposedly civilised Western Europe, the ability to teach our children to read and read well is somehow in decline and under threat. As an ex-grammar school teacher my efforts to teach young people the rudiments of science and maths depended on their ability to read. Literacy is the key to accessing educational knowledge and acquisition of skills. I always assumed that the vast majority of the kids leaving primary school in our country entered secondary education with the ability to read sufficiently well to take advantage of the opportunities on offer through the educational curriculum. I had assumed that young children from poorer areas, at least had a chance of achieving some sort of social mobility through their educational experience. It seems I have been more than a little naive in this regard.

However, it is one thing to draw attention to a problem but quite another to know how to fix it. I looked more closely at Save the Children’s information and explored a number of their ‘Read On. Get On’ documents which provide both research data and a clearer understanding of their target areas. I was particularly interested if there was a consensus about what has gone wrong with reading skills teaching and development and what sort of policy directions they were advocating. There is much detailed information to consider and I can only point the finger at a few of the areas that caught my attention but here are a few thoughts to be going on with.

The ‘Read On. Get On’ campaign has set an interim goal that every child in Northern Ireland has good language skills by the time they start school. Lots of evidence points to the development of early language skills as crucial to children’s educational success and future life chances. The gap between poorer children and their better-off peers in language skills in Northern Ireland is significant and is getting bigger as time goes on. In response to this the campaign calls for progress in three broad areas viz. further investment in the early years workforce, more support for parents and the development of a national child development measure to track young children’s progress.

Meanwhile, another apparently unrelated story about education has made the news. Under the arresting headline ‘White British pupils lag behind ethnic minority peers’ the BBC reported on-line on 4th April that while ahead at age 5, the white British kids slip to 13th place behind Chinese, Indian, Asian and those of black African heritage by the time they sit GCSEs. The BBC education Editor Branwen Jeffreys provides this analysis: ‘It’s not just what happens at school, but what happens at home that makes a difference. The value parents place on education, and simple daily rituals of helping with homework or regular bedtimes can help a child.’

I applaud the Save the Children campaign to improve reading skills and understand their intention to have our political parties become aware of the problem and to commit to doing something about it. Their focus quite rightly is on pre-school and on supporting parents and carers to help their children. However, it is in the poorest and most deprived areas that the parents are most likely to lack the knowledge, skills and ability to help their own children with reading. In many of the minority communities in Britain a culture of support for education and adult encouragement for young learners is still vibrant. This is what we seem to have lost and what needs to be reinstated. What is required immediately is a co-ordinated and properly financed programme of adult education, to support and enable parents in socially deprived areas to help their own children to read and read well.

In the meantime I urge you to sign the petition – if you don’t, I believe that it might be appropriate to point out that your gluteus maximus resembles the fleshy fruit of Prunus domestica!

 

This article is correct at 06/04/2016
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