Janet Street-Porter: If we value literacy, we must pay for it

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The Independent Online

In spite of Tony Blair's mantra education, education, education espoused so forcefully more than a decade ago, the standards reached by our secondary schoolchildren for literacy and science in a new report are woeful. It's shaming that our teenagers are ranked 24th internationally for maths, down from 8th place in 2000, 17th for reading, down from 7th, and in science we fell ten places to 14th position.

In short, our academic achievements compared with other developed nations leave a lot to be desired. It is hard to square this news with the Government's most recent set of "results", and I use that word loosely, in which they claimed that literacy standards in our secondary schools were actually rising.

These rankings, based on independent tests contained in a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, are worrying because (for the first time) this country rated less than average for basic literacy, below Finland, Hong Kong, Liechtenstein and Japan. The schools minister, Jim Knight, talks about reforms the Government have brought in to raise "core skills", but headteachers warn of an over-emphasis on testing and targets, which turns off pupils and makes school an unattractive place for many who feel they don't make the grade.

Once again, outsiders like you or me, voters and not public servants or politicians, just stand amazed at the bare-faced use of rubbish rhetoric to cover up a complete failure to educate our young. You can call reading, writing and arithmetic core values or whatever you like, but if one in five are still leaving secondary school without a decent level in essential skills, you have failed big time. And after 10 years in the job, you might expect that those in charge of our education system would have worked out what core skills are, what employers need from school leavers, and how to supply them.

Last year, 30,000 children left primary school without even the basic level of English more than 5.5 per cent. For boys, the figure is even more shocking 9 per cent. There are all sorts of reasons: English may not be the first language spoken at home and class sizes may be too big for specialised teaching. Another is the lack of even one parent prepared to spend time in the evenings helping their children read and write. Another is the lack of reading material in the home. Most children look at screens, rather than books or comics as my generation did.

By the time children get to secondary school, the chance to catch up with their peers is lost. The Reading Recovery Network is currently running a 10m project which funds specially trained teachers who coach children one to one until they are up to the level of their peers gaining, on average, 21 months in reading age over the short period of four to five months.

Charities like RRN need all the funding they can get, if the cost of sending children to special needs schools (often completely unnecessarily) is to be cut. At the moment, the Department for Children, Schools and Families has allocated 5.05m to Reading Recovery over three years, matching sums raised by various charitable trusts and foundations. A scandalously low sum of money to ensure that the poorest children have an equal start.

It's hardly rocket science, is it? Just 26 local authorities take part in the scheme, funding the grand total of 249 teachers. I want to weep. What is the Government's problem with adequate funding so every education authority can participate? Core skills? What we need is some core thinking.

It's fathers who really count

Hazel Blears has a new gimmick 20 "role models" to reassure under-achieving young black boys that it is cool to be successful outside the over-publicised areas of sport or music. Menswear designer Ozwald Boateng, left, and Tim Campbell, winner of the first series of The Apprentice, are among those who will draw up a list of 20 young men to tour the country's schools and youth clubs, spreading the message.

Firefighter Andy Bathie donated his sperm so that a lesbian couple could have a son and daughter. In a landmark case, he has been forced to pay child support. Maybe we should decide whether we think dads are important before we talk about role models for young men, black or white.

* The festive season means the arrival of my most loathed form of greeting card, a lavish photograph of the senders' children, posing against a bucolic scene near their country pile or a well-appointed interior. I'm childless, by choice, and find these cards totally nauseating. They carry no spiritual message of any kind, other than the subliminal one that it is socially superior to breed and carry the false hope that all your friends wait with bated breath for this updated family portrait to adorn their mantlepiece.

Over the years I've accumulated a whole selection of these monstrosities, ranging from pop stars and their sons on matching camels, to misty-eyed toddlers on their ponies in the Cotswolds. Another form of one-upmanship is spotting what these middle-class brats are wearing matching smocked frocks for the girls and horrid mini shooting-outfits for the boys. These cards are a clear signal you inhabit a taste-free zone, and probably work for one of the more pretentious glossy magazines.