Saturday, 29 October 2011

Reading between the lines

A few weeks ago I attended a ‘curriculum meeting’ at my daughter’s school, to find out what she will be doing during her year in Reception. One of the things we learned about was the ‘Phonics’ system of learning to read. This, as the name suggests, is all about concentrating on sounds, and from the way the teachers described it, I thought it was a sensible approach, as well as a fun way for kids to learn.

However, at a conference last week, ‘Reading Stories: Does it Make Sense?’, the approach was questioned. Michael Rosen, the former children’s laureate, pointed out that nowhere in an Ofsted report is reading, or a school’s possession of books, mentioned.

Furthermore, it has to be highlighted that Ruth Miskin, government advisor on education, and the keenest promoter of the phonics system around, is herself the author of a very popular phonics scheme.

I got the impression from the parents’ curriculum meeting, which only a handful of parents attended (it was held during working hours so obviously would’ve been impossible for working parents to attend),that with class sizes of almost 30, there is only so much reading the teachers can do with the kids individually. The teachers invited us parents to come in and sit with the children in the reading corner and help out when we can.

All of this points to the fact that switched-on parents are going to give their kids a head start, and that children from less privileged backgrounds will, from the outset, lag behind. The incredible levels of inequality are brought home by the fact that children from homes with 500 books or more receive, on average, three times as much ‘teaching’ at home. Another telling statistic: children from language-rich backgrounds have heard 32 million more words by the age of five than those from deprived backgrounds.

It is well known that by the age of eighteen months the kids from a nurturing home have leapt ahead of the children from deprived backgrounds, so by the time we get them into school the gap has already opened up, the danger being that it will never close, only widen. I’d like to see parenting classes as standard, rather than the education system trying to bridge the gap almost five years too late, with over-stretched teachers taking on a parenting role. I’d also recommend getting older people into our classrooms to give individual reading assistance. This would give possibly isolated seniors who want to keep their minds active a chance to use their knowledge and help instil the youngest members of society with a life-long love of books and learning.

I’d also like to see the government re-commit to Book Start, the scheme run in conjunction with Booktrust. This is a scheme which gives all babies and toddlers free books, regardless of their background. The coalition government have halved the funding they give to the scheme, though at present it is limping onwards. It would be a tragedy if this scheme fell by the wayside altogether, because, coupled with library closures – which writer Alan Bennett deemed ‘child abuse’, and rightly so – the end of this scheme would mean pre-schoolers from book-free households wouldn't get near a book until they go to school.

Just one of the delightful ways, then, that our present government are condemning more children to a life of underachievement and frustration, whilst also ensuring that social divisions and gaping inequality worsens by the year.

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