Why do we treat our teachers and schools so badly? I suppose it might be because they are such an easy targets. Everybody has been to school and for many that makes them educational experts. This certainly seems to be the case with newspaper editors and politicians. Politically, education is always good for those vote-winning sound-bites. When things are going well it’s because of the wonderful initiatives that governments have introduced. When there are problems then it’s the fault of schools – but don’t worry, the government will make it all better again. What nonsense!
The latest band wagon that politicians are on and newspapers are supporting is the old issue of boys and reading. So we get ludicrous newspaper headlines like, ‘Boys leaving primaries with reading age of seven’ – what all boys? Or is it lots of boys or just some? How do you know they’ve got a reading age of seven? What does a reading age of seven look like? This is followed by other headlines, ‘Progress tests for younger pupils to tackle shocking standards among 11 year olds.’ Nobody goes on to clearly define what is meant by ‘shocking standards’. Then along comes the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, who has fed the newspapers just enough data to allow them to create these headlines, and says that head teachers whose schools persistently failed would be sacked. I think you are meant to see him as a shining knight on a white charger slaying the wicked dragons and raising reading standards all by himself!
We plan to test young children at the age of six before the majority of children in other countries have even started school and begun any ‘reading lessons’. This will ensure that we label these boys as reading failures from an early age – we will then give them more ‘reading lessons’ (similar to the ones that haven’t worked so far, only more intensive) to ensure that they see reading as a chore and switch off even more. When governments talk about, ‘Boys leaving primaries with reading age of seven’, they fail to mention that these are the boys who have had to suffer a host of expensive, government led, and imposed, reading initiatives, which haven’t worked.
Whether we like it or not learning is not just the responsibility of schools. Though for many, supposedly intelligent people, like to pretend it is. We learn from a wide range of people in a variety of situations – many of them nothing to do with school. When most five-year olds start school they have a tremendous range of skills – they can walk, talk, play, interact with others, ask questions, experiment, problem solve – where did all this learning take place? It is estimated that about 15% of a child’s waking time is spent in school – what’s happening during the other 85%? Who is teaching the child then?
We live in an age where we rightly insist that all children should be able to read. A child with reading difficulties is missing out on so much pleasure and learning opportunities. So how do we learn to read? It will be different for all of us. We do know that it doesn’t happen at the same age for all children. Some, especially boys, have other, more exciting things to do at the age of six than read a book. They’ve got wars to fight, trees to climb, footballs to kick and models to make. What every child needs is time between the wars and the building to relax, for someone to read to them, tell them stories and develop that desire in them to find out for themselves the mystery and excitement to be found in those written pages. Unfortunately we live in a world where many parents are too busy to play their part as ‘teachers’ – and why should they when they are constantly being told it’s not their jobs – it’s what the schools should be doing, and not to worry, because if the schools don’t do it we will close them down.
How did you learn to read? I can’t remember how I did. I remember as a seven-year old in the 1950’s the sheer pleasure I used to get each week when out teacher opened up the ‘library cupboard’ and not only could we choose any book we wanted but were also allowed to spend the next hour reading it and then able to take it home and finish it. The ‘reading lessons’ as such consisted of everyone having the same book and each of us taking it in term to read a section – so tedious and boring (I always got in trouble for losing my place when it came to my turn to read out loud, this was because I had moved on in the book!) In Finland they have some of the best literacy rates in the world and the children don’t start school until they are seven, a full year after we propose to test our children. I wonder how they learnt to read?