James O’Shaughnessy is Managing Director of Floreat Education and Mayforth Consulting. Chief Policy Adviser to Portland Communications.
The Conservative-led Government can congratulate itself on delivering a radical reform programme that is already starting to deliver results. In primary schools, where my charity Floreat Education works, we’ve just seen national standards in the 3Rs jump by 4 per cent thanks to greater accountability, more choice and competition, and a major focus on core skills of literacy and numeracy. But, lest we think the job is done, consider this. One in five children leave primary schools at 11 unable to read, write and count at an age-appropriate level. It bears repeating – one in five. That increases to nearly two in five of the poorest children, while nearly 50 per cent of poor British boys don’t reach this level. These figures are better than they were, but they are still appalling. They represent lives wasted, potential unfulfilled, children who will struggle to become the authors of their own life stories.
This is an endemic problem in English education, driven by a mixture of low expectations and an ideological rejection of tried and tested teaching methods. The consequences are seen not just in the children leaving school, but also in the population at large:
- We are the only OECD country where the literacy of 16-24 year olds is no better than that of 55-64 year olds.
- Over 5 million adults cannot read or write at the level expected of an 11 year old.
- A student from private school is five times more likely to go to university than one from an underprivileged background.
For too long, many people have just accepted that this is how it is – some people will always fail and there isn’t much we can do about it. But the performance of a handful of truly amazing state schools blasts this pessimism out of the water. Look at St George’s Primary School in Wandsworth, South London, which I’ve been fortunate enough to visit. Nearly half of the children there are in receipt of Free School Meals (compared to a national average of around 20 per cent) and over 40 per cent don’t speak English as a first language. Yet in 2013 every single one of their children reached the expected levels of literacy and numeracy at age 11, and half of them were achieving at the level you’d expect of children 18 months older than them.
How they achieve these results isn’t complex to understand, but it can be hard to do. It starts with sky high ambitions – when I commented to the head on the rarity of a school that gets all of its 11 year olds reading, writing and counting at the expected level she simply shrugged her shoulders and said: “Anything else would be letting them down”. She genuinely believes these standards are within easy reach for every school.
A focus on core skills permeates everything at St George’s, with a structured phonics programme and extensive literacy tuition the main features. Starting in Nursery, teachers teach with authority and kindness. Children listen intently, and learn with impeccable behaviour and a smile on their faces. A focus on values and good character is always present, and teachers push themselves hard to deliver the best education they can, including for children with special or additional needs. The result: a standard of education that matches the best private schools, but focused on the children who need it most.
The mission for this government, and the next and the next, must be to learn the lessons of schools like St George’s and ensure they are repeated everywhere. That is why Save the Children’s new campaign, Read On, Get On, and the broad coalition behind it, are so important. Many people are concerned that charities spend too much time in quasi-political campaigning and not enough on their core activities. So how refreshing to see one of the UK’s biggest charities look to their own back yard and take on one of the greatest challenges our society faces. Their ambition to eradicate childhood illiteracy by 2025 is a no-brainer and should form the centrepiece of a Conservative manifesto. Before he left the Department Michael Gove pledged his support for this goal, and happily Nicky Morgan has done the same. Perhaps we should be more ambitious and aim to get there sooner? But this goes beyond party politics and into implementation. Everyone shares the ambition – how can it be done?
The answer is a relentless focus on the basics – synthetic phonics programmes to help children decode words and start to read and write; a rich knowledge-based curriculum to introduce children to the best that’s been thought and known so they can genuinely understand and love the written word; a constant exposure to stories and poetry at home and at school; and, the highest ambitions for every child. All this is based on a breadth of evidence about what works. It is easy to describe this approach but not to do, though schools like St George’s show us it is possible with hope and perseverance. With Save the Children’s support the essential task of ensuring all children are literate has just become more achievable – something every conservative should support.