Unions attack reading test for six-year-olds

Theo Usherwood,Pa
Friday 17 December 2010 15:50

Teaching unions today criticised the Government's plans to introduce an MOT reading test for six-year-olds, saying it would do nothing to improve literacy in schools.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said Education Secretary Michael Gove's idea of allowing successful headteachers to take over failing schools implied many teachers were not doing their job properly.

Figures released by the Department for Education found 9% of youngsters - some 18,000 pupils - had the reading age of a seven-year-old by the time they arrived at secondary school aged 11.

Mr Gove told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the Government planned to introduce another test for youngsters to make sure they could decode words by the age of six.

He said his department would prefer schools to use synthetic phonics, which links sounds to letters to teach children to read, in an effort to target an "unbudgable" group of children who were failing to make the grade.

But Ms Keates said teachers should be praised and standards were far higher than they were 15 years ago. Then only 49% of children reached the required level 4 when they took SATS at 11, while today that figure had topped 80%.

She said many children targeted by the Government in this latest initiative were either learning English as a foreign language or suffered severe medical conditions that held them back.

Ms Keates added: "Many schools are facing immense challenges and they are not going to be resolved by Michael Gove announcing another test.

"It's not an easy problem and there is no easy solution but I think for teachers to have on the last day of term yet another diatribe against them claiming that they are under-performing is really demoralising."

Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the NUT, said the last Government concentrated on helping pupils who attained level 3 in their SATS to reach the higher grade at the expense of a small minority of youngsters who were stuck on level 2.

He claimed many specialist teachers, responsible for helping children who were learning English as a second language, were facing redundancy as a result of Government cuts.

Mr Courtney added: "If the line Gove goes down is blaming teachers, then he is missing the point. It's not about poor schools, poor headteachers or poor teachers. It's about schools with poor intake."

The local authority with the worst attainment levels for reading was Nottingham City Council, where 15% of children have a reading age of seven when they leave primary school.

Derby, Manchester, Rotherham and Telford also have poor rates of literacy for primary school pupils.

Cllr David Mellen, in charge of education in Nottingham, said 25% of the city's primary school children speak English as a second language, adding it would "inevitably have an impact on our overall performance".

Nottingham North MP Graham Allen, who is conducting a review of early intervention for the Government, said that children's chances of becoming literate are often determined before they even arrive at school.

He said: "At 11, it is too late. What you need to do is get parents to read to babies and toddlers and encourage them to look at books, to get basic social and emotional capabilities in place."

Education watchdog Ofsted said children's social background, ethnicity or disability could not be blamed for poor results.

It backed the Government's use of phonics, provided they were taught "rigorously and consistently", adding that teachers need to be well trained and managed, while reading must be at the heart of the curriculum.

The Prime Minister first mooted plans for an MOT for reading back in 2007 as Opposition leader.

While the Department for Education has made spending cuts elsewhere in its budget, including the scrapping of a £30 a week allowance for the poorest teenagers to stay in education, it has looked to concentrate resources in early years and primary education.

As part of the reforms, failing primary heads could be sacked while successful principals could take over schools which do not pass muster in an extension of the academies' programme.

Mr Gove's officials will also collate information on teaching methods and results in an effort to find out why some schools fail and others don't. Deprivation is not a viable excuse for the Education Secretary, who says schools in poorer areas have been successful under the right leadership.

He told Today: "We want to make sure that those schools where children are not being taught to read are tackled because, ultimately, if you do not get a child reading by the time they leave primary school, by the time they arrive at secondary school, the curriculum is just a closed book to them, literally.

"I don't want to be in the business of sacking anyone but I do want to be in the business of saying to all schools and local authorities 'I'm sorry, it's unacceptable if children leave school (unable to read). You have seven years, you have ample resources, you have the full support of the department for education in tackling illiteracy'."

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