Thursday, October 25, 2007

Scary Tidings

I watched a not particularly fantastic documentary last night that still quite grabbed me. It was one of those train wreck shows looking at how one sink junior school was trying to lift literacy rates amongst the kids. What stopped me cold was one year four class they focused on where 8 out of 25 kids couldn't read. Even the bright girl at the top of the class was only capable of disney style picture books.

Now I know I've got a bright boy in a good school, but Pirate Pete is currently churning his way through Rowling, Tolkien and Lewis. He quite happily sits down to his history texts (currently his class is on the Saxons), and I've led him to a few of my more advanced history books.

I'm sure that little girl at the top of her class is as bright as my boy. She had very supportive parents, Nigerian, and they were happily filmed reading together. Kids are absolute sponges at this age. You can open their minds in all sorts of directions without pushing at all. What that was telling me was this poor girl was getting drop fed, when she was likely capable of so much more.

Don't even go to the poor kids who couldn't read. The school was comendably doing a hard push on literacy and they were using a synthetic phonics system. It was working, the programme covered a full class year, and by the end all but a small handful of kids had progressed to at least a basic level of literacy.

And yet... the documentary also exposed a highly stressed set of teachers. Some of the kids where horrible. I wouldbn't want to think how stressful it would be to have a roomful like that. How can you spend any time with the bright ones, when all of your focus is on basic discipline? Also, it was the poor performers getting all the focus. I don't want to sound like I'm complaining about that, they needed that hard push. Yet I can't help but question how it got that way?

These where eight year olds unable to read. Not just one or two, but a whole swathe of the class. First, where are the parents? Doing homework with your kids can be a pain, but its got its pleasures too. How can you not notice if they can read or not, and if you notice they can't, why aren't you doing something? Second, how have we let schools get into this state? I'm not blaming the teachers, you have to be dedicated to your job to work with kids on small pay. Yet, somehwere, in all the curiculum changes, in all the paperwork and targets, in the softly softly discipline culture, we've let the teachers down.

I certainly felt for the little boys (and they were all boys) who couldn't read. That's appalling. The one I really felt for was the bright young girl. She clearly had supportive parents who where involved in her schooling, but I suspect they don't know she's behind generally. She's just in a system that doesn't have any room to help her expand.

I know this wasn't a representative sample. Clearly the school was chosen because it was so far behind, and was doing an experimental push on literacy. Yet, the fact that even one school like that exists is such a condemnation of our society. Children are our most precious resource. If we don't nurture them well the fundamentals of our society and economy will fail.


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