Conor Ryan: Why reading should be a primary concern

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The Independent Online

We should know soon whether 80 per cent of 11-year-olds have reached the expected level four in English and whether 75 per cent have done so in maths. An Independent survey last week suggests that the Government will miss these two targets. It will be close to meeting its numeracy target, but will miss its more ambitious literacy goal by as much as four points – hardly surprising, given last year's five-point English shortfall.

We should know soon whether 80 per cent of 11-year-olds have reached the expected level four in English and whether 75 per cent have done so in maths. An Independent survey last week suggests that the Government will miss these two targets. It will be close to meeting its numeracy target, but will miss its more ambitious literacy goal by as much as four points – hardly surprising, given last year's five-point English shortfall.

Estelle Morris, the Education Secretary, must be nervous as she awaits their publication. Her predecessor David Blunkett raised the stakes when he told a BBC interviewer five years ago that his head would be on the block if Labour's primary school targets were not met. I was with him when he gave that interview, and contrary to later reports, he didn't actually promise to resign: he argued that the voters would judge whether he had succeeded or failed just as teachers were being judged by new targets.

Such remarks sought to counter the prevailing scepticism about the literacy strategy. And such scepticism proved misplaced. Teachers rose to the challenge. Even if the government targets now seem over-ambitious, most English and maths lessons have been transformed. Secondary teachers see a real difference in pupils. It would be absurd to regard a near miss on the targets as a failure. But the Government cannot afford to relax. Indeed, the lesson of this month's results should be that primary schools matter as much as secondaries. And while ministers need to be seen delivering improvements in secondary schools, it cannot be at the expense of younger pupils. By setting the near-impossible target of 85 per cent of pupils reaching level four in 2004, the Government instinctively knows this. Raising the game of the remaining 25 per cent of pupils will be tougher than earlier improvements. But given the big variations in progress between local authorities and schools, there remains plenty of room for improvement.

Furthermore, the DfES has recognised the need for extra help for underachievers with a range of intensive programmes, from early intervention for six-year-olds to booster classes for 11-year-olds. But more fundamental change might have more impact and reduce the need for such extra help. There is mounting evidence that pupils learn to read more quickly by learning the sounds of letters ("synthetic phonics") rather than by seeing the word on a page and breaking it up ("analytic phonics").

The literacy hour blends the different phonetic styles, but experiments in Scotland suggest that boys outperform girls in reading and writing using synthetic phonics on their own, an important finding because while girls have met the targets south of the border, boys haven't. Other research by Dr Jonathan Solity from Warwick University has found that children can learn to read better if the number of word sounds is kept initially to a basic group of 64 rather than the 550 in the literacy hour, allowing children to read 90 per cent of all monosyllabic words in English. He says synthetic phonics on its own would be far more effective. His research in Basildon schools has shown impressive gains for struggling pupils.

Those involved in the literacy strategy argue that it is easy to get bigger gains with small groups. And not every school has yet fully accepted the need for phonics. They point to encouraging improvements in spelling in the Key Stage 1 tests for seven-year-olds. Improvements in Scotland and Essex may indeed simply be the result of the extra attention that inevitably comes with such concentrated studies. And schools are free to choose synthetic phonics with the literacy hour.

But having convinced most teachers that phonics should be part of how children learn to read, the Government should be ready actively to encourage synthetic phonics if the evidence suggests it is more effective than the current mix. And that means it must do the necessary research. Either way, primary schools can no longer be regarded simply as last term's project.

The writer was David Blunkett's political adviser from 1993 to 2001

education@independent.co.uk

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