Janet Street-Porter: Why do we neglect the young?

If a child can't read and write they are left way behind, marked out socially as losers and stigmatised
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The Independent Online

Howls of outrage greeted the announcement that the Government plans to impose a compulsory national curriculum on children under five being cared for by childminders or nurseries. What's the problem? Would you send your car to a garage where the mechanics had no experience and spent the day betting? Do you care if your child spends all day playing with sand and not reading books? You should do.

Increasingly, the state is having to take over the role of parenting. More and more women are choosing to work - often they have no choice in the matter. What your child does at a playgroup or nursery is too important to be left to chance.

Far from eliminating childhood, these radical proposals should ensure that every child has more of a chance to enjoy it to the full. Don't tell me not being able to read and write and talk in sentences by the time you've reached the end of your first year at primary school does not matter because you can play the xylophone or make potato prints.

The Childcare Bill seeks to ensure that the literacy and numeracy strategy will be extended to include children from the age of three, with another set of guidelines from birth to three, with Ofsted inspectors checking on standards.

The Government also would like to see all children aged between three and 14 having access to childcare from 8am to 6pm by 2010, but it is to be the job of local authorities to deliver the service. Unless the £200m shortfall in funding (at present £600m is allocated) is forthcoming from central government, it looks unlikely that the Government's promises will actually be delivered.

There are no plans to test toddlers, and all the Government seems to be doing is imposing some pretty sensible standards on how reading and writing are to be taught - which can only be a good thing.

When you consider that last April the Parliamentary Select Committee on education reported that one in five children were leaving primary schools unable to read or write properly, you can see why many educationalists believe that giving as many children as possible the chance to acquire basic numeracy and literacy before they start school is an excellent idea. If you look at the number of young people who go from primary school to an existence outside mainstream society - falling into trouble with the law, taking drugs, not bothering to work, claiming benefits and ending up in prison - probably a quarter to a half of them will be unable to read or write when they reach adulthood. We failed those children by the time they were eight.

After I spent some time in a primary school classroom for a television series last year, I realised that if a child can't read and write they are getting left way behind, not just during lessons, but in the playground.

They are marked out socially as losers, stigmatised by the other children, and find other ways, from bullying to withdrawing from social interaction, to disguise their problem.

These children are just as intelligent as their classmates; however, they are operating on a tenth of their power - they just need personalised help to become switched on.

The Reading Recovery Network is an excellent educational charity, based at the Institute of Education at London University. Using methods brought to the UK from New Zealand in 1990, they train special Reading Recovery teachers, who work one-on-one with pupils selected because they have ended their first year at primary school unable to read and write properly. About 5,000 children a year are receiving this special tuition (when there are clearly well over 20,000 in the country who actually need it), and after only 20 weeks of special lessons more than 80 per cent are able to rejoin the mainstream, with 70 per cent achieving average levels in literacy tests by the time they are 11. So these children aren't stupid, they just need to be spotted and given that extra push as quickly as possible.

A £10m project called Every Child a Reader was announced last July, funded by the DfES, the KPMG Foundation and the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, allowing the Reading Recovery scheme to expand, so that for the next three years an extra 4,000 children will be helped to read as more teachers are trained and more local education authorities are given the funds to pay for them.

Of course, you could despair that the Government still places literacy so low down its list of funding priorities that Reading Recovery and KPMG are still having to grovel around the city and House of Lords to find the £2.9m shortfall for the project.

The Government has invested just over £2m - a pitiful sum. But it's so obvious that if every child can read, no matter what it costs, then we will have less youth crime, less policing costs, less money spent on repairing damage caused by vandalism and less money spent on health care a couple of decades down the line.

The children who can't read and write tend to be those who have free school meals and come from single parent families. They are often left alone for long periods of the day. The childminder, the nursery and the primary school teacher are all assuming a large role in meeting these children's needs.

Some of these youngsters are not spoken to at home, never eat meals with another person, have no one checking on where they are or who they're hanging out with. Increasingly, the Government is under pressure to find the money to nurture this lost generation.

The other night I attended a charity dinner where teenagers from amateur boxing clubs entertained the crowd with a series of closely fought matches - I was so enthusiastic, I ended up sponsoring one myself! You couldn't imagine a better set of role models for Tony Blair. Hard- working, super-fit, focused young men, determined to give their best. Instead of bleating on about youth crime and antisocial behaviour, the Prime Minister might also consider whether introducing physical sports such as boxing to boys and girls from the age of nine or 10 might be another way to nurture self-esteem and channel all that natural energy into something positive.

Why is it that the very young (like the very old) get neglected when funds are apportioned, and the gaps paid for by passing a begging bowl around captains of industry and charities? Whether it's teaching music, paying for science lessons or IT equipment, or even buying books to set up a small library, politicians increasingly expect someone else to cough up.

Children are the most important group in our society - they are going to be running the country tomorrow - so perhaps we should cancel a motorway or two, lay off a few thousand Whitehall consultants, and even chuck John Prescott's big house-building plans in the bin.

For, if our children can't read and write properly, then we don't have a future.