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Every Child a Reader

Volume 460: debated on Thursday 24 May 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

This is certainly the second and possibly the third time that I have been selected for an Adjournment debate just before a recess, and therefore detained a Minister, and a Parliamentary Private Secretary, who might have other things that they would like to be doing. I hope that he will find it worth while, because this is an important subject that deserves further discussion in this House.

The subject is the Every Child a Reader scheme, and I shall start by placing what I am going to say in the context of the Government’s achievements in literacy. The substantial improvement since 1997 in the performance of schools in producing pupils who are at least basically literate has been significant and welcome. There have been a number of innovative and highly successful initiatives to strengthen the ability to build literacy through other means as well. Sure Start is an excellent example, and one of the mini Sure Starts is in my constituency. But other initiatives, such as Reading Champions, which is focused on boys, and the Bookstart programme to deliver books to families, are all intended to provide a holistic approach to improving literacy skills. The worrying element is that there remains a tail of non-achievement amongst a minority. Roughly 20 per cent. of boys and 13 per cent. of girls leave our schools with literacy levels below the accepted range for that age.

Every Child a Reader is aimed at exactly that tail: identifying early those who will struggle with literacy and providing remedial programmes for them. The previous Adjournment debate on the subject came just before the publication of two reports that evaluated the success of the programme, so I thought it would be opportune to discuss this again, now we have in the public domain the research that shows what has been going on.

The first piece of research I will refer to is by KPMG. KPMG is one of the sponsors of the programme; it is worth saying that the programme is not wholly funded by the Government. It is match-funded by the Government and linked to a range of private and voluntary sector funding bodies who share the Government’s goal of wishing to improve reading skills. KPMG’s research focused on the costs of failing to remedy poor literacy skills. It showed that the cost to the state per person up to the age of 37, where the data become difficult to work with, was £45,053 per individual. That amounts to around £2 billion a year.

Those costs are often incurred in ways that most of us could readily identify, and which would lead us to say, “Well, that’s fair enough; I can see that.” A good example is additional special educational needs support in secondary schools, which is expensive. Slightly less obvious are costs relating to exclusion and the consequences of negative experiences in school, which are often linked to poor literacy. Another cost is that someone who leaves school with poor reading skills is likely to face longer periods of unemployment, or employment on very low earnings—and as we know, one outcome of unemployment can be poor health, and it can also result in a greater likelihood of that person being involved in criminal activity. It is not difficult to see how the figures for the economic consequences of failing to deal with poor reading skills at an early age are worked out.

Other costs are not even estimated. One of them involves the intergenerational link. Once poor literacy has been established in a family, it is likely that those low reading skills will continue for generation after generation, because the child’s home will not have the role models, or the books, that can help them to build on whatever they have achieved in school.

I will address the success of Every Child a Reader shortly, but first let us consider the return on the investment in that programme. The cost is just under £2,500 per pupil, so the return is about £15 to £18 for every pound spent. I used to be a business man, and if someone had offered a return of anything like that, I would have found myself standing in a long queue of those willing to invest their money. That return makes it incontrovertible that early remedial action to deal with poor reading skills has a huge societal and economic benefit, and is well worth taking.

Let us look at other research on the scheme. It funds specially trained reading recovery teachers in infant and primary schools teaching five to six-year-olds. It is targeted on that age range, based on experience of success elsewhere. The scheme is not novel—it came from New Zealand—and there is plenty of learning experience behind it, which shows that it is best applied in that period of a child’s education.

The first year of the three-year pilot that is still in progress has been evaluated. It showed that in schools funded through the programme, there was an average gain of 21 months in the reading age of the children targeted in four to five months of teaching—just 38 hours of committed time by a teacher. In contrast, similar children in schools without that level of support fell further behind. Regrettably, the experience is that once poor reading skills are established, the child becomes depressed and demotivated in school—and that instead of progressing, they fall back.

Unsurprisingly, the benefits of better reading skills are not confined to being able to read better. They have a huge impact on behaviour in schools, commitment to other subjects in the school curriculum and matters such as school attendance. They have a major rounded effect on the child in the school community, and also on the school community itself. Encouragingly, the research shows that the gender gap between boys and girls is narrowed, too. Boys gain slightly more from this intervention than girls. The gap is illustrated by the fact that 63 per cent. of children taking part in the programme are boys. We all know that disproportionately more young boys have difficulty learning to read and achieving in school.

There is also evidence that the presence of a trained literacy teacher has consequential effects elsewhere in the school community. Primary schools in my constituency are smaller than the national average, as it is a primarily rural area. One or two children who require disproportionate teacher time can have a severe impact on the wider school performance. I remember vividly one example of a small school in my constituency which had 40 to 45 pupils in a confined teaching space. There was a genuine anxiety that one child who was failing badly, and, possibly as a consequence, also had behaviour problems, would have a negative effect on the wider school community. I can therefore understand how such things have a wider resonance for the school community as a whole.

Derbyshire was identified as part of the pilot from the start. Elmsleigh infants and Stenson Fields primary in my constituency have participated in the pilot to date, and Woodville infants will join the scheme this year. They are all excellent schools and serve slightly different areas. Elmsleigh infants primarily serves a former local authority housing estate and its environs, Stenson Fields serves the only ethnically mixed area in my constituency, with a large Sikh community, and Woodville infants serves a mixed area of new housing estates and some older traditional terraced housing. They represent a good range of the challenges in my area.

Every Child a Reader, as it applies in Derbyshire—and as is probably true elsewhere too—is not fully funded. The council has had to provide some top-up funding, and has voluntarily extended the scheme to reach other schools beyond those originally funded. However, it remains the case that even with that extension, only 12 Derbyshire schools will be part of the programme in this school year.

Zoe Davis is a teacher at Elmsleigh and has taught 13 children since the scheme started. The children selected were those with the most significant deficits in reading skills. Zoe feels that many more children would benefit from such intervention if it could be funded. I shall depersonalise the assessment of one of the pupils to illustrate the impact of the scheme. In 13 weeks, the child advanced from a reading age of four years 10 months to one of six years one month. The pupil also experienced a huge increase in confidence. Not only is she now able to read, but she feels much more confident in addressing the other challenges of school life. The teacher says that before the scheme she was painfully shy, but is now much more at ease with the tasks that she faces every day.

In an example of parental reaction to the scheme, Sally Shreeve, a parent at Elmsleigh, has said that it has made a huge difference to her daughter, Daisy. Sally says:

“Before she was frightened to pick up a book and now she is reading all the time.”

There are personal experiences that back up the data. The scheme is having tremendously positive results. Derbyshire’s senior adviser for school improvement, Judith Oakes, believes that children in every school would benefit from the programme. It has been a resounding success.

The pre-Budget report announced that the programme will now be rolled out nationally, reaching 30,000 children by 2010-11. My first question to the Minister is: how is that to be done? What discretion will local authorities have in deciding how to allocate the resources? Can they be targeted at particular schools? As I said, there are issues. Four in 10 children who leave school with a reading age below that expected of them come from what would be described as deprived backgrounds, but six in 10 do not. Although it is certainly true that coming from a background where reading is not so common, where there may be no books in the house, and where incomes are low may be a bias towards poorer reading skills, it is certainly not a precondition for them. There are also many children from more affluent families who for various reasons have poor reading skills.

I can see the temptation to focus resources on the areas of greatest deprivation, and I think that that will miss significant numbers of children. I am proud to say that my constituency is a great deal more affluent than it was 10 or 15 years ago, and people also have much higher aspirations, but I would not want the assumption to be, “There’s no problem in a place like that. The resources should be targeted at poorer areas, where deprivation is more entrenched.” I want to ensure that the programme is applicable to any school where there are children defined as having difficulty reaching the appropriate reading age.

My second question is: how is the roll-out to be funded? As I have indicated, the programme is already not wholly funded from central Government resources. The local authority is expected, and has volunteered, to make a contribution towards the costs. Will that be the case when the programme is extended, or will it be wholly Government funded?

It is also important that we are clear about the additional costs that the primary school sector bears. It does not get the whole benefit of the investment. If one looks at the investment figures that I gave at the start of my speech, one sees that the return is achieved during the life of that young person through to adulthood. The gain during the primary years is relatively small. It is therefore important that if primary schools are asked to achieve substantial gains with these young people, they receive targeted funding to do that. If it is left as a discretionary item, it is fairly predictable that other choices may well be made. The resources need to be clearly focused on meeting the national objectives, which, as I said, can be driven down from the KPMG helicopter view of the national benefits that we can achieve to that individual child and the story that I told of her mother’s reaction to what had been done on her behalf. I look forward with great interest to what the Minister has to say on the subject.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) on securing this debate. It is clear that he recognises the critical importance of ensuring that every child acquires a love of reading and effective skills as a reader. He recognises, too, the important contribution that Every Child a Reader has to make. His comments will interest many parents, and I am sure that many teachers in South Derbyshire will welcome the support he has expressed.

I welcome the opportunity to describe the way in which the Government are working to ensure that every child makes excellent progress in reading. The lives of too many adults are blighted by illiteracy, and we are committed to eradicating that scourge. I want to talk about the wider measures that the Government have introduced before focusing on specific interventions, including Every Child a Reader.

The ability to read underpins all educational achievement, and there is a clear link between reading for pleasure and academic performance, not just in English but, as my hon. Friend said, across the curriculum. Without the ability to read, children cannot play a full part in society as they grow up. The ability to read is essential, not merely because it is the foundation of all other learning but because of the joy it brings to people throughout their lives. Ensuring that children are fluent readers is a vital part of our goal to give every child the chance to fulfil their potential. We cannot afford to overlook pupils or leave anyone behind. A society with high literacy is not merely a better-educated society: it leads to higher skills, reduced crime and better health. Creating such a society means, first, doing all we can to ensure that children’s life chances are equal and, secondly, helping those children who fall behind to catch up with their peers.

The Government have significantly improved educational achievement, particularly in primary schools. In 1997, a third of children left primary school without mastering the basics in English and maths. Today three quarters achieve the expected standard in maths and about four fifths in English. In fact, the 2006 key stage 2 results at the end of primary school are the best ever.

Much of that achievement can be attributed to the success of the literacy and numeracy strategies, and now the primary national strategy. Nor is progress limited to the affluent. Greater numbers of pupils from all socio-economic groups are improving their results. Just as important, the performance gap between well-off and more deprived children has decreased, which is critical if we are to promote greater social mobility by narrowing the achievement gap. We are committed to going further and to ensuring that every child can fulfil their potential. A significant minority of children still experience problems with reading that could lead to poor outcomes in later life. We cannot wait for those problems to become manifest at 11, so we must identify those children earlier.

As part of our emphasis on personalised learning and meeting the needs of each child, we need to deploy a variety of different strategies if we are to be truly effective. For example, last week at the school librarian of the year awards, I was delighted to unveil the latest title in the School Libraries Association’s “Riveting Reads” series. “Boys into Books” is aimed at boys who stop reading for pleasure in their early teens. At the event, I was delighted to meet Ingrid Hopson, who is school librarian of the year and is just one example of the many school librarians who are enthusiastic advocates for the power and joy of reading, inspiring many young people to explore worlds that they would otherwise never encounter. Drawing on the expertise of its members, the association has done an outstanding job in coming up with a list of 150 books designed to appeal to young people, especially boys, whatever their interests and talents. Every secondary school with boys on its roll has the chance to pick 20 books from the list for its school library, and we hope that many parents will find it a useful resource, too. Like me, my hon. Friend might have enjoyed some of the classics on the list such as “Kidnapped”, “The Hobbit” and the more recent “Northern Lights”. He might be less familiar with modern classics such as “Captain Underpants and the Preposterous Plight of the Purple Potty People” and “The Stinky Cheese Man”, but I can assure him that they are well worth the read.

Turning to the importance of helping children to read and enjoy reading at a young age, last October, we launched the reinvigorated primary framework for literacy and mathematics, which has already helped to raise attainment levels among all pupils in primary schools, particularly those facing the greatest disadvantage. The literacy element of the framework is grounded in the independent Rose review of the teaching of early reading. The framework incorporates Jim Rose’s view that systematic phonic work, set within a rich language curriculum, is the best route for most children to become skilled readers. Meanwhile, to ensure that we get children off to the best possible start in life, we will introduce the early years foundation stage from September 2008. By overcoming the artificial divide between care and learning, we will improve opportunities for all children. Both the primary framework and the early years foundation stage are all about getting it right first time.

It is critical, however, that the right systems are in place to give a child a second or third chance if they fall behind. We need to step in with extra help to put them back on track for success. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the Every Child a Reader programme is already doing just that for many children in the pilot areas. It is designed to share the best of the intensive reading recovery programme, which supplements classroom literacy and is directed at the lowest achievers in reading in the class.

Specially trained teachers provide intensive one-to-one tuition for children with significant literacy difficulties at the end of their first year of primary school. Authorities can decide locally to introduce such intervention and it is particularly beneficial in areas of high deprivation. As we have heard from Derbyshire, its success is undeniable; four fifths of children who complete a reading recovery programme as part of Every Child a Reader are returned to average or above-average literacy levels after about 38 hours of one-to-one teaching.

It is an extremely intensive—and therefore expensive—programme, which limits the likely scope as we roll it out nationally. Every Child a Reader builds on the success of reading recovery by placing specialist literacy teachers, trained in reading recovery, in schools to support children who are most in need. By utilising reading recovery, which is a long established initiative with proven success, while widening its influence, Every Child a Reader offers benefits to a far greater number of pupils, and it has successfully expanded that intensive activity. It is clear that many children in my hon. Friend’s constituency are already benefiting from the programme, and I commend his efforts to raise its profile and ensure that it reaches even more children, such as those he described, who would profit from its support.

My hon. Friend asked about the roll-out. I assure him that we are wholly committed to that, which is why the Chancellor announced the national roll-out of Every Child a Reader in his pre-Budget report. As he said, the programme will be extended so that 30,000 children a year benefit from it by 2011. The phased roll-out will begin in 2008-09, and in the last year of the pilot for the 2007-08 period additional teachers and local authority teacher leaders will be trained to increase capacity in the system and help to ensure that we can meet the target of reaching more than 30,000 children. We are still discussing some of the detail of the roll-out, and in our discussions about targeting I will bear in mind my hon. Friend’s comments about identifying individual need for the programme, rather than simply focusing on areas of multiple deprivation. I have considerable sympathy with that view.

My hon. Friend asked about funding. We have yet to work out whether we shall continue the relationship with co-funders, but the £10 million that the Chancellor announced in the pre-Budget report was obviously welcome. Some schools may choose to use the personalisation money that has been agreed for them, to extend the excellent work of the programme.

The national roll-out of Every Child a Reader will support our least able children in learning to read. If we want all children to succeed in life—as we do—we must make sure that they are able to read for enjoyment, learning and life.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Six o’clock.