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Last Updated: Saturday, 11 November 2006, 00:00 GMT
A way all children can be readers
By Mike Baker
Education correspondent, BBC News

Reading Recovery tutor and pupil
The scheme involves personalised one-to-one tuition
Is this the biggest missed opportunity in education?

Imagine if virtually no child left primary school unable to read.

Or if no teenager bunked off school and ended up in trouble with the law because their reading skills meant they could not cope.

If these things could be changed, how much might be saved?

We would no longer have to spend millions on anti-truancy campaigns. The bills for locking up young offenders could be cut dramatically.

This week there was new evidence of the effectiveness of a scheme that could do just that.

It is a reading scheme that targets the least able six-year-olds.

Not new

A year-long pilot project has shown that 80% of these vulnerable children can be brought up to the expected reading level for their age in a matter of weeks with intensive, professional, one-to-one tuition.

In educational terms, that is the equivalent of a child being "saved".

Head teacher Jacqueline Bruton-Simmonds
Head teacher Jacqueline Bruton-Simmonds is impressed
The scheme is called Reading Recovery. So why have we heard so little about it?

The shocking thing is that it is not new. It began in New Zealand 30 years ago and came to Britain as long ago as 1990.

It is not an alternative to the general teaching methods for whole classes but is, instead, a highly structured intervention strategy for rescuing children who are struggling to take even the first steps towards reading.

For the last 10 years there has been no shortage of research evidence showing its effectiveness.

The most recent, this week, showed that children who were almost two years behind their expected reading age at six could be put back on track with 38 hours of teaching.

It found that children on Reading Recovery improved at a rate four times faster than similar children who were not on the programme. Moreover they maintained their gains over subsequent years.

Yet, instead of spreading, Reading Recovery has been in retreat in the UK ever since the last Conservative government decided to pull the plug on its funding way back in 1995.

So how did that happen?

Funding cut

In the early 1990s, Reading Recovery looked set to be introduced into all primary schools.

The government was funding a three-year programme through its strategy for inner-city schools.

Ofsted inspectors travelled to New Zealand and returned singing its praises. Large numbers of Reading Recovery teachers were being trained.

Yet in 1995 the government switched off the funding. It said the money had only been intended as "pump priming".

Ministers said local councils could continue to fund Reading Recovery. But the councils and schools soon found other priorities for their limited cash.

To be fair, this was the time when the government was focusing its efforts on creating the National Literacy Strategy. This absorbed the time, energy, and budgets of primary schools.

But while the National Literacy Strategy was aimed at the broad sweep of young children, it did not have the specific remit of Reading Recovery, which targeted the 6% of pupils, some 35,000 children, who leave primary school each year lacking the most basic reading skills.

Literacy hour

This week's research showed that the literacy strategy, while effective for the majority of children, does not work well as an intervention strategy for those who have barely started to read by age six.

When Labour was elected in 1997 supporters of Reading Recovery might have had some hope of a change of tack. After all, in opposition, Labour had criticised its abandonment.

Yet, once in power, Labour too felt the development of the literacy hour for all pupils was the priority.

Schools and councils abandoned their Reading Recovery schemes and it might have disappeared altogether if it had not been for the determined efforts of the Reading Recovery National Network at the Institute of Education in London.

Its latest annual report shows that Reading Recovery is barely scratching the surface, reaching just 3,983 children in the England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland last year.

That is less than one in eight of those thought to be in need of it. In England the numbers are particularly low, at just 1,796.

Thousands of teachers have been trained - yet most cannot get work delivering the scheme because schools cannot afford to employ them
Until recently Northern Ireland led the way with 2,707 pupils on Reading Recovery, a relatively high proportion of the primary school population.

Last year, though, funding dried up and that number fell by more than 1,000.

Thousands of teachers have been trained in Reading Recovery yet most cannot get work delivering the scheme because schools cannot afford to employ them.

According to Julia Douetil of the Reading Recovery National Network, every time it has looked as if the programme might become the priority, something else has come along to divert cash from school budgets.

Money has certainly been a factor. It costs between 2,000 and 2,500 to put each child through the scheme.

It is expensive because it is essential that the one-to-one tuition is delivered by a specially trained Reading Recovery teacher - not a parent-helper or a teaching assistant.

As Julia Douetil puts it, the problem is that "people assume that very small children are cheap to educate, whereas they would not bat an eyelid at spending 2,000 on an 18-year-old".

However she now sees some hope of change. The latest research has been made possible by the Every Child a Reader campaign funded by the KPMG Foundation, which attracted some government matched funding.

This has allowed some schools to restart their Reading Recovery programmes.

Jubilee Primary in Hackney is one. Its executive head teacher, Jacqueline Bruton-Simmonds, says that in her long experience, "no other programme is as effective" in rescuing those children who are about to "give up hugely" on school.

She says the effect on these children is that they become "confident, happy, they take their place in the class. It's wonderful."

With evidence and testimony like this, the government might yet respond.

After all, Reading Recovery offers the answers to two of the most intractable problems: the under-performance of boys (the majority of poor infant readers are boys) and the flat-lining of national test results in English at age 11.

As the supporters of Reading Recovery put it: if you think it's expensive, just think of the costs of not doing it.

Close help 'boosts slow readers'
06 Nov 06 |  Education

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