Counting the pounds 10bn cost of British illiteracy

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The Independent Online
The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank recruits employees from over 50 different national education systems. It is not alone. Each day that passes, more businesses find themselves recruiting staff globally. This has profound implications for our national education system. Unless its standards match those of the best worldwide, our young people may find that in the global job market they fall far behind their peers from Singapore, New Zealand or Germany. They will have been betrayed.

In setting up the Literacy Task Force, which will report on Thursday, David Blunkett anticipated this challenge. Its task has been to design a strategy which, if pursued over a five to ten year period, would ensure that all eleven-year-olds could not only read but read well. If we want our school and college leaving standards to match the best in the 21st century, we must first ensure that reading standards are transformed.

In the 1996 national tests, only 57 per cent of pupils achieved or exceeded the standard expected of eleven year olds. International comparisons suggest that in literacy we are in the second division, well behind New Zealand and the United States, to mention just English-speaking examples. Most worryingly of all, we have a long tail of under-performing schools, not just in urban areas. The costs to a country of illiteracy, in lost business, remedial education, crime and benefit payments have been calculated by accountants Ernst & Young to be over pounds 10 billion per annum.

The present government has put the issue of literacy on the agenda. It has also robustly and repeatedly criticised primary teachers for not teaching properly. Yet - amazingly - there has never been a major national initiative to enable all primary teachers to learn the most effective methods of teaching reading. No wonder so many primary teachers are bewildered and confused. As the criticism is heaped upon them, they find themselves basing their teaching approach upon a distant recollection of what they learnt when they trained. This is an unacceptably haphazard state of affairs.

The Literacy Task Force report will show how - for less than pounds 20 million a year over 4 years, a sum which can easily be contained within present levels of education expenditure - all 190,000 primary teachers could be enabled to teach reading in accordance with internationally tried and tested best practice.

The most powerful exemplars are to be found in United States, Australia and New Zealand. The Success for All project run by Bob Slavin from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore uses upbeat, fast-paced teaching of the whole class. Children are systematically taught phonics. Smaller groups are also used to reinforce the message. The central principles which underpin Slavin's programme are clear: prevention is better than cure; intervention should be early and intensive (which demands that pupils are regularly assessed), a belief that every student can succeed; and a relentless determination to pursue the agreed approach.

This, and a similarly successful programme in Victoria, Australia demonstrate that radical improvements in literacy standards are possible. We now need to apply these lessons strategically in all 20,000 primary schools in England. New Zealand has come closest to achieving this goal. We may be able to beat them at cricket but in rugby and literacy they leave us standing. The key to their approach is to ensure that the vast majority of children - 80 per cent or more - learn to read first time through being taught property. Through an intensive but brief period of one-to-one teaching for those who have fallen behind at age six - an approach called reading recovery - a further fifteen per cent learn to read. The remaining 5 per cent, many of whom have severe learning difficulties, have the support of an individual learning plan and many of these, too, will learn to read ultimately.

Once best practice has been adopted across this country as the Task Force proposes, Reading Recovery will make sense here too, especially if it can become more cost effective.

The proposals, to be published on Thursday, blend the international experience with the best work here. On that firm foundation we propose a programme of training which will enable every primary teacher to use the most effective methods. As standards of literacy rise, primary teachers will gain the respect from the public that their work deserves. The first step towards the transformation of standards is believing we can do it. The evidence proves we can.

Professor Michael Barber of the Institute of Education, London University, is Chairman of the Literacy Task Force.

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