Louise Brown is a teacher and Director of Educational Partnerships at a School in Oxford, and a Conservative activist.
Reading is an issue of social justice and a human right. Not only does is allow access to a broader curriculum, but there are academic studies that show that reading for enjoyment is crucial for well-being, self esteem and self awareness.
It is an essential skill required to fully participate in society and yet we are still failing many children.
Recent data from the IFS shows that in 20 years the disadvantage gap at GCSE level has not changed. Each year only ten per cent of disadvantaged children who leave primary school with reading below expected levels get passes in English and Maths at GCSE.
Early gaps in reading that are not properly addressed, continue to lead to progressive educational failure throughout a pupil’s school life. Pupils with poor reading struggle to read independently and so read less. As a result, they do not accumulate the background knowledge and vocabulary to improve their comprehension.
Research from literature, inspection data, and school visits points out that secondary schools that have had success, where a higher-than expected proportion of poor readers achieved a Grade 4 or above in English Language at GCSE, identify reading weaknesses and provide targeted support. A recent report by the Department for Education has highlighted the need for secondary schools to explain exactly how they are tackling the poor reading skills of their pupils.
Improvement happens only when expectations are high, gaps are accurately identified, and an analytical approach set up of screening and diagnostic tests. Leaders succeed when they prioritise reading and share and communicate this vision to colleagues, who know how crucial they are to improving the reading culture in their school.
Staff with expertise supporting others, knowledge and updates on struggling readers being shared regularly with colleagues, a consistent approach across year groups and regular assessments and evaluation of the programmes that are used – this is how progress is made.
The argument for making sure these reading deficits are dealt very early on doesn’t need much discussion. Secondary school students are already coping with a transition from an often small, nurturing environment to something very different.
Year 7 results, according to the Education Endowment Foundation and in particular for disadvantaged and younger boys, often take a dip, so making sure reading is secure and pupils have a desire to read before they start has to be a key priority.
On a recent visit to the Discovery Primary Academy in Peterborough, I saw how high expectations, strong leadership, regular monitoring, and a systematic, consistent approach at primary level leads to success.
I observed the teaching of phonics in reception using a single word phonics programme that links immediately with books and letter formation, not just words. It is teacher-led but peer-supported with powerful interactions and collaboration between the pupils who work in pairs throughout the year groups.
I also followed the progress of pupils into Year 1. The expectations are very high and although the teachers involved were slightly anxious to start with that there was too much content in the programme; this did not last long. The school has added to the programme with the addition of their own school ‘phonics actions’, which link to the sounds and letters and these are used consistently throughout the year groups. Everything is regularly monitored.
What is significant about this school is the high level of need: 45 per cent of their pupils are EAL (English as an additional language), 40 per cent eligible for Pupil Premium, and 19 per cent SEND (special educational needs or disability). The pupils are often transient; of the 31 who started the year, 16 pupils have already moved on since this September.
Parents often can’t read themselves and are not engaged in their children’s education. School is the only place where there is structure for many of these children, and support at home is rare. In one instance, using this approach, a boy who had no English when he started in Year 5 reached expected levels of English within two years.
It follows that an extension of this idea of one consistent approach of assessing standards and progression within a trust, will have added benefits and lead to shared common understanding and learning from others, access to support networks, and ease of movement for staff and pupils between year groups and schools. Teachers will be able to progress and develop. and this will lead to improved retention and, ultimately, improved outcomes for pupils.
At the time of writing there are 31 phonics programmes that have been approved by the DfE (none of which are compulsory). How much more successful would be attempts at tackling these continuing early literacy failures if everyone was using the same approach, effectively the implementation of a data-driven roadmap for all schools?
If we transpose the evident benefits of a systematic, consistent approach within a school or trust to a national level, this would surely improve outcomes; one size does fit all when it comes to ‘quality first teaching’ of reading.
Early literacy failure is one of the largest, and is possibly the largest, root cause of poor outcomes for school leavers. A reduction in early literacy failure would be likely to deliver the single biggest improvement in schools’ performance at every level and would be one of the biggest drivers of levelling up. Is it achievable without it? I doubt it.