LETTER : Struggling with basic skills

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The Independent Online
Sir: I am not surprised at the levels of illiteracy in over-45s ("One in five Britons fails literacy test", 12 September).

I left primary school in 1963. The school was in south London, with a mixed social intake, as it bordered working- and middle-class areas. Of the final year, approximately a quarter passed the 11+, and about a quarter were virtually illiterate. There were two main reasons for the high proportion of children scarcely able to read and write.

First, this was pre-Plowden, with a regimented system of teaching. Whole class rather than group work was the norm, although those who were expected to pass the 11+ were given extra coaching as a small group. Second, and I suspect much more important, none of my classes had fewer than 40 pupils. My elder sister went through primary school with classes sometimes in excess of 50. No wonder that with such large classes, many children who were struggling got totally lost.

In 1976, I met a teacher from my old school and as we talked she told me that for the first time she had succeeded in getting all her reception class children reading. When I asked her why that was, she simply said that for the first time the class size was below 20.

If the Government is serious in wanting to raise standards in basic skills, it could start by getting class sizes back to what they were in the 1970s.



Distance Learning Unit

University of Sheffield