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John Bald: How many pupils start secondary school unable to read properly? The truth is we don’t know.

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John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.

The Government’s estimate of an additional 30,000 pupils arriving in secondary school with weak reading skills is worrying, but it is a guess. The national reading test for 11-year-olds (NS6) was abolished by a committee rigged by HMI to obstruct Mrs Thatcher. We had no test at all until the early 1990s. Now we have a new one each year, with grade boundaries moved up or down to suit the convenience, first of Labour governments, now of Ofqual. The scores tell us next to nothing – and secondary schools are right not to trust them.

I trust nothing I can’t check, especially Labour strategies. Their National Literacy Strategy failed because it substituted the “Searchlights” guessing game theory for phonics. As soon as they were elected, Blair’s Labour rushed out a programme of summer schools, to which I was recruited at a late stage as a consultant. Almost all failed because they were staffed by whichever teachers happened to be available rather than those who knew how to teach reading. Labour then decided that all spare resources in schools were to be devoted to teaching reading, with much the same result. An art teacher I observed had as much idea of teaching reading as I have about teaching art, and the exercise was a waste of everyone’s time.

Sir Kevan Collins’ idea of tackling the reading deficit with an army of volunteers will meet the same fate. The Warnock Committee’s decision to replace specialist literacy teachers with special needs co-ordinators deprived secondary schools of a resource that is now badly needed. Most individual reading teaching is now undertaken by assistants, and if Sir Kevan’s army is recruited, there will be no one to train it. All of us who can bring skills to bear on the problem need to do our bit, but this is not a solution to a problem affecting the whole of the school system.

Nicky Morgan, as Education Secretary, was ridiculed by our opponents for her goal of making 11-year-olds “secondary ready”, but the pandemic and this hasty government reaction show that she was right. Pupils who can’t read and write properly can’t do their school work, and this leads to misbehaviour, dropout, and exclusion. If we can agree that literacy – alongside social reconstruction – should be the focus of everyone’s efforts, we cannot waste time and money repeating Labour mistakes.

Fortunately, we can learn from a small number of schools that have bucked the trend. In 2005 I had the honour to lead the inspection of Gateway Primary School, Marylebone, now Gateway Primary Academy. Over ninety per cent of its pupils had English as an additional language. Starting with systematic phonics teaching using Jolly Phonics, with assistants teaching small groups, as in Ruth Miskin’s Kobi Nazrul, they built reading systematically into everything they did throughout the school, so that pupils became used to reading non-fiction in science, history, and art lessons, as well as in English. All pupils, except those who arrived in their final year, met national standards in English and maths, and two-thirds exceeded them. The school won the Evening Standard School of the Year award, using this report as evidence. Its techniques should be studied and adopted.

For secondary schools I make no apology for returning to Michaela, and particularly to the work of Deputy Head, Katie Ashford, who is also the special needs co-ordinator. Grouping pupils according to thelr learning needs and abilities allows teachers to focus closely on the wide range of literacy skills pupils start with. Many are not “secondary ready” in Year 7, and yet the Year 8 work I saw from middle sets on my visit was already at around Grade 6 at GCSE. HMI described the progress thus:

“Pupils develop a love of books and reading. They talk about their favourite authors and the books they enjoy most. Support tailored to pupils’ needs ensures that pupils who struggle with reading, writing and mathematics when they join the school catch up quickly.”

and thus:

“Pupils make exceedingly strong progress across Years 7 to 9 and across subject areas, including English, mathematics, science, humanities, French, art and music. As a result of outstanding teaching, work in pupils’ books shows that, over time, all groups of pupils make consistently accelerated progress from their starting points.”

This report was written two years before Michaela’s stunning GCSE results. It shows that a sustained focus on literacy in every subject, at levels matched to pupils’ needs, can tackle the literacy deficit that is at the heart of educational underachievement and close the gap for disadvantaged pupils. The school pays close attention to spoken language and social development too, but not as a means of avoiding tackling weak literacy skills. Not for nothing did I argue earlier this year that headmistress, Katharine Birbalsingh, is the most important person in British education.

Footnote: Alex Quigley, currently national content manager at the Education Endowment Foundation, has written two books. Closing the Reading Gap – and Closing the Vocabulary Gap – that offer invaluable practical advice for secondary schools looking to tackle literacy problems and develop pupils’ skills and understanding in all subjects. I recommend them alongside Michaela’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, and The Power of Culture.

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