'Catch-up' drive to improve poorer children's reading

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The Independent Online

New government research is expected to show that billions of pounds of investment has failed to close the gap in school grades between rich and poor children.

Education Secretary Ruth Kelly today acknowledged that while schools in many deprived areas have improved, children from the poorest families are falling further behind.

In a major speech to the IPPR think-tank, she outlined twin moves to boost the reading skills of primary school pupils in England.

Ms Kelly will first launch a scheme to give every child aged from eight months to four years a free bag of books.

This aims to encourage more parents to read with their children and to improve the current statistic that shows one pupil in five leaving primary school without the required reading skills.

She also announced a £10 million pilot scheme to give one-to-one tuition to children who struggle with reading in 200 primary schools.

The results of this pilot project will form evidence for the major review of the Government's literacy strategy which is currently under way, officials said.

In her speech, Ms Kelly stressed that schools in the most deprived areas of the country are "getting better".

"All groups of pupils have made significant improvements in attainment since 1998.

"But despite that, it appears that we have not managed to narrow the gap between the attainment of children from lower and higher income families."

The gap in school grades between poorer children who receive free school meals and their more affluent classmates has even widened slightly, according to the Government's research.

The minister's comments follow recent research from the Sutton Trust charity which found that social mobility in the UK had fallen since the 1960s.

The £27 million Bookstart programme will see free books and information on libraries delivered to every young family in England.

The bags for older children - aged up to four - will also contain crayons and scribbling pads to help them take the first steps towards learning to write.

Dr Tessa Stone, director of the Sutton Trust, said: "In Britain, social mobility is declining. What this means is that children are much more likely to attain in relation to their parents' experience than in relation to anything else.

"It's increasingly the strongest predictor of educational attainment."

Improvements in many schools were not impacting on the "actual life chances and attainments" of the poorest children, she said on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

"It seems that not every child is benefiting from more global improvements.

"We have got to focus more on individual children and their family circumstances as well."

Ms Kelly acknowledged: "Despite the very rapid improvements in standards across the board, and despite the fact that schools in our most deprived areas are catching up on the rest, there is still this group of pupils that we have to look more closely at and think about what really works for them."

Citing one potential measure, she continued: "We are talking about, within the national literacy strategy, having very good overall whole class teaching but also trying to do more for those who are at risk of falling behind.

"One example of that is introducing more reading recovery into our schools, which is a very intensive one-to-one reading strategy which will help those children who are at risk of falling behind and not likely at the moment to get to Level 4 by age 11 really to do so."