The next Prime Minister must invest in literacy for all children
This summer, DYT is celebrating ten years of educational impact. This speech by DYT’s Founder and Chair – Sarah Driver – looks back at our sucesses and considers what’s next for the Trust.
The publication of our book, DYT the first ten years, celebrates the tremendous good Driver Youth Trust has provided to schools and the wider education system over the past ten years. I am very grateful to Cath Murray for capturing our story and passion so succinctly.
A persistent problem with literacy
I’m sure all of you will be watching what’s happening with government and wondering what it means for you and the schools and charities you represent – I certainly have. Out of all the political point-scoring that has been going recently it was good to hear one bit of sense, from Jeremy Hunt in one of those tv debates. Jeremy Hunt is right that there is a persistent problem with literacy in our schools.
To fix this the next prime minister must invest in literacy for all children. Both candidates are pledging more money for education; we believe they need to invest in literacy for all or be prepared to pay for it later. Failing to provide sufficient resources to tackle low levels of literacy is a false economy.
We know that there are at least two children in every class who have difficulties with literacy. I literally mean ‘every class’. Remember of the 1.3 million children with a Special Educational Need, 80% sit in mainstream classes, dealing with issues such as dyslexia, speech and language and communication difficulties to name but two.
Let’s also remember that there is another whole cohort who never get as far as having their SEN identified, who never get as far as a register, but who still struggle in class – these are the majority of children we target at DYT.
We’ve shown through our research that the main stakeholders who inform our education system – Department for Education, Ofsted and third sector charities such as the National Literacy Trust have not had these children on their radar. That is changing. Three years ago, in Michael Wilshaw’s final Annual Report as HMCI there were just two references to SEND. The most recent Annual Report, under the direction of Amanda Spielman, there were 28.
Schools are complex systems serving different communities, in different areas of the country, some struggle to find staff, some are in difficult economic and social areas. That said, they all share one thing in common – they will have a number of pupils who struggle with literacy and that is what we are not addressing in a meaningful, systemic and sustainable way.
For some schools an element of the literacy difficulties will have a social basis such as lack of books at home, parents who themselves struggle with literacy and environments that make learning to read and write one of the least important problems of the day.
In every school though, private or state, primary or secondary, there will be a group of children who “have a persistent difficulty in reading, writing, speaking and/or listening that may not be responsive to standard education approaches and requires further intervention” – our DYT definition of literacy difficulties.
This is what drove us to set up DYT. I desperately want to see a system which looks beyond the ‘simple’ solution that politicians keep asking me for in terms of an intervention or cascade training. We need a nuanced debate about how best to improve literacy rates, within the constraints of the system as it is, in terms of teacher workload, retention and, knowledge and skills.
The DYT solution
What DYT advocates is not rocket science. I’ve witnessed the school system as a parent – as a governor, a Chair of governors, and in my personal drive for literacy for over 25 years having visited countless schools. I simply cannot believe that we are still where we are.
There have been improvements – though it’s disappointing that the new ITT review group say SEND is not on their agenda – but we cannot say, as a nation, that we are supporting and teaching those children who struggle with literacy as we should be. Instead, I argue, that we have pretty much chosen to ignore them, consigning many to the ’dumb table’ as my son was, or given them the naughty behaviour label. I look at the obviously bright, cheeky ‘chappie’ at the back of the bottom science set and I think – I know you’re clever, I know you’re sitting there because you can’t read and write at the levels of your peers and I know you’re being punished for it. You’ve been judged by your reading ability, not by your ability to learn and that is fundamentally wrong.
When I talk about meaningful, systemic and sustainable change, I’m talking about taking the steps that will really address literacy in our schools. It won’t happen overnight. It is not a quick fix. It’s not about one intervention or scheme, it’s certainly not about nice book corners (children who can’t read hate going there to sit beside children who can!), there is no silver bullet. But this can change. We must first accept this issue exists, that these children and their education matters, and decide to stop this enduring problem.
Here are some starters for 10!
The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. It’s that simple. Both the review of initial teacher training and early career framework are positive steps. We must have teacher training in inclusive practice. We must have dedicated time to go beyond basic teaching strategies and address the challenges these children face. Put simply, we need to train teachers about what to do, when a child doesn’t just ‘pick up’ reading after all the usual steps have been taken. We know from our research that teachers want this training.
Training for teachers cannot stop there. Learning at ITT level is fine but until you actually have a child who can’t learn their first 100 words, it’s not that real. As an aside, I have never understood why the Teaching Profession doesn’t mandate levels of CPD annually and why the countless ’training’ sessions teachers go on aren’t recorded, allowing teachers to build up evidence of their expertise – be it in maths, literacy, dyslexia, etc. like other professions do, such as I did as a solicitor.
We then need pathways for teachers to become specialists, within the school system, working within school groups or local authorities. They can:
- support and train the wider workforce and also deliver the higher-level support that some children, with deeply entrenched problems, need;
- They can assess children to determine if they need access arrangements for their exams – to level the playing field, so they can show what they know.
This is what happens in pretty much every private school in the land and it’s not fair that those in the state system are denied this support. Incidentally, we are doing a report on specialist teachers, following the Rose Review, 10 years on, where we go into this in more detail.
Understand the intractable nature of literacy difficulties
We need to bring talk of literacy difficulties into mainstream conversations. We cannot afford to intentionally exclude 1.2 million children from education debates, because they are inconvenient outliers. We want every government paper published on education and literacy and every initiative to have children with literacy difficulties as a central focus, not as a bolt-on.
Finding solutions together
We need to unify educationalists from across the ideological spectrum around how to best support children and young people with literacy difficulties. Our message is nuanced, it’s not a headline grabber. Yet, as our CEO Chris Rossitor says, nobody thinks that a child should leave primary school without being able to read or write. We think you could unify everyone in education around such a simple, yet powerful, idea.
These measures – teacher training, talking about literacy difficulties as a mainstream issue and working together – would be a start in making meaningful, systemic and sustainable changes to the outcomes of what is a large group of learners. It’s not about sticking plasters, it’s not about spending 20 minutes here and there with well-meaning but often poorly trained Teaching Assistants. It’s about working with schools, in their situations, with their pupils and their staff and enabling them, through dialogue and discussion, to come to solutions that work for them. That is what we do with our Drive for Literacy programme. It’s not about making an already over-worked teacher sit in front of a laptop late at night going through tick-box questions that have little or no relevance to the children he or she is teaching.
The good news is that there are increasingly more in the system who want to see a change. I include the enlightened MPs DYT has worked with over the years who want to see a change, cross-party. Who have surgeries full of parents complaining that their children are not getting the support they need and deserve. Who see their local authorities overwhelmed by the increasing numbers of children going to special schools or being excluded and going to Pupil Referral Units. Who see the number of children being home-schooled on the rise. Wouldn’t it be great if they got together to effect real change?
Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for some pupils to have different educational settings outside of mainstream schools. However, with the pressures on budgets and on results we are seeing our mainstream schools forced to become places where ‘different’ doesn’t belong, where ‘inclusion’ is limited, where children who struggle with literacy are not getting the support they need and deserve – I have said it before, it makes us a poorer nation because of it. Something needs to change.
I’m hopeful that enough stakeholders be they teachers, head teachers, MPs, the DfE, Ofsted – who have seen the problems will decide that every child deserves the best chance of becoming proficient in literacy, and by that, I don’t mean just reading and writing.
This speech was delivered by Sarah Driver on 4th July 2019 at the launch of DYT: The first ten years.