Russell Hobby, general secretary of NAHT writes about education policy, with a focus on how the profession can take back ownership of its own destiny
Reading - take the 'riskier route to excellence'
Today sees the publication of the latest report by the Read On. Get On. campaign (see below).
The report, called “The Power of Reading” asserts that ‘an inability to read well risks a life of poverty and struggle for too many of today’s children.’ As a founder member of the Read On. Get On. campaign, this is a point of view that NAHT shares.
Along with the other partners involved in Read On. Get On. NAHT is committed to the ambitious but necessary aim of getting every child reading well by the time they leave primary school.
Whilst the campaign focusses on the end of the primary phase, I believe its something secondaries should be deeply interested in, too. There can be few changes more beneficial to the secondary phase than a widespread standard of high levels of literacy.
Only this week, the Conservatives renewed their ‘war on mediocrity’ in schools by suggesting that an additional test for the poorest readers as they begin life at secondary school is the way forward. Let’s be clear – it is not. The goal outlined by Read On. Get On. is much more ambitious and meaningful than the government’s proposals.
Read On. Get On. is not a government target. It is a target set by the education sector, by schools and voluntary bodies. As such, it actually stands a chance of succeeding. It doesn’t offer crass and misleading talk of widespread illiteracy to play to the press and thus alienate those who deliver; it doesn’t demand radical change overnight and thus trip itself up; and it doesn’t see reading as merely instrumental to passing exams or getting a job. Reading is a pleasure in its own right.
The new report – The Power of Reading – sets out three priorities:
- Early oral language development;
- The systematic application of phonics;
- Broadening the volume of reading whole books for pleasure.
It assumes that the changes introduced by the coalition government since 2010 have set in train the steps required to succeed on phonics and focuses attention on the first and third priorities. It proposes, among other things, equal recognition on skills and status for early years practitioners; greater training and support for literacy co-ordinators and the same emphasis on strategies for comprehension as that given to techniques for decoding.
There is a sense in which the three priorities appear sequential - early years, key stage one and key stage two – but we should be cautious about this. Language development can continue in increasing sophistication for some time and the cultivation of the pleasure of reading must begin very early. It is one of the distortions of the current government’s approach that it appears to treat comprehension as a barrier to the rigorous teaching of decoding. But if you divorce reading of meaning you divorce it of purpose.
Nonetheless, there is a sense that the emphasis devoted to each priority does alter over time. This would mean that, assuming decoding has been mastered earlier, KS2 is the stage of reading widely for comprehension and for pleasure. What a golden age that would be for pupils and teachers if that became the norm, but do our existing frameworks of accountability and measurement stand in the way of that? The drive to demonstrate constant progress and to coach to narrow key stage tests may be problematic.
This is another example of the way in which very high pressure forces people to take the quick route to average rather than the longer, riskier route to excellence. One more day of test practice may be safest in tipping people over the line in an assessment; a visit to a museum or play might just widen their vocabulary and stretch their horizons until they can achieve something exceptional: it is easier to write, for example, when you have something to say. The goal of reading well and widely will not be served by drilling more students to a level 4b.
We’ve written previously on this topic here.
A slightly anxious diversion at the end there, but this is why the Read On. Get On. campaign is so important: it offers an inspiring and effective alternative to the current approach of tightening the screw. It gives schools the space to do the right thing and the skills to know the right thing. We can only hope government will play its part too by backing off enough to let teachers succeed.