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Schools: Volunteer Reading Helpers

Volume 777: debated on Wednesday 11 January 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any plans to recruit, train and support volunteer reading helpers to go into primary schools and work with children who are struggling with their literacy.

My Lords, we have no plans to recruit and train volunteers, but schools have the freedom to do so where they think this is in the best interest of their pupils. It is vital that all children learn to read fluently. We have reformed the curriculum and placed phonics at the heart of the approach to teaching children to read. Thanks to our reforms, an additional 147,000 six year-olds are on track to read fluently.

My Lords, staff best qualified to deliver intervention to pupils with special needs are having their time dominated by children with behavioural problems, but the charity Beanstalk has an answer. It recruits, CRB checks and trains volunteer reading helpers to work with schoolchildren struggling with their literacy—importantly, working with the same children for a minimum of a year. This continuity develops the child’s confidence, motivation and self-esteem. As part of the Prime Minister’s shared society, will the Government support this initiative and encourage businesses to allow their staff to volunteer to help children with their reading?

My Lords, we are clear that businesses have a strong role to play in engaging with the school system, either directly through work experience, careers advice or as speakers, or through engaging with charities such as Beanstalk. Evidence is clear that where school reading volunteers are involved in a structured programme and given appropriate training and support, for instance by charities such as Beanstalk, Springboard or School- readers, the results can be highly effective.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that some years ago, when my children were small, the local libraries used to run a big programme in the school holidays? Schools issued a list of books and the librarians’ encouragement for those children gave them a love of books and literacy. Surely that could be used again in the same way now.

My noble friend makes an extremely good point on the importance of librarians. They can be crucial because they influence the books that are chosen. It is about not just learning to read, but what our children read and improving their knowledge.

Under the shared society, we will promote what the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, referred to and certainly support groups such as Beanstalk and Springboard.

My Lords, digital literacy is as fundamental for children as literacy. It is literacy. In 2013 the Government enacted a bold policy to put coding on the curriculum, but, as I understand it, with extremely scare resources behind it with which to train teachers and, therefore, children. Will the Minister answer two questions? First, how many children are currently learning coding in the school system? Secondly, how can the Government support brilliant groups such as Code Club to encourage teachers and children to learn this vital skill?

The noble Baroness makes an extremely important point; I know that she is very experienced in this area. It would be nice to see all schools have coding clubs—I know that an increasing number are. I think that the figure for pupils doing computing at GCSE is around 50,000, but I will write to her on that, and I will certainly look at the resources available. I am very happy to discuss the matter with her further.

My Lords, further to the question on libraries, is the Minister aware that the gap in reading and especially in writing between boys and girls continues to widen? The most innovative schemes, which often help the most disadvantaged families and therefore boys, are in libraries. Is the Minister further aware that 8,000 jobs have been lost in libraries during the past six years and that 350 libraries have closed in that time? Can he tell me how many libraries are likely to close in the coming year—I am happy for him to write to me—and what impact he thinks it will have on his ambitions for literacy?

Sadly, I cannot predict the future, but I can say that we have more than 3,000 public libraries and I understand that approximately 110 static libraries have closed in the past six years—some have merged. Local authorities are legally required to provide a comprehensive and efficient library service. Some do that via mobile libraries, but we leave it to them to decide how to do it.

My Lords, those of your Lordships who have visited further education colleges will know as I do that, too often, their mission is distorted by having to teach, instead of vocational skills, reading to 16 year-olds. Will my noble friend ensure that primary school children can read fluently and well, and that the task is not left to further education colleges to carry out?

My noble friend makes a very good point; I know that he is very experienced in this area. Since the introduction of our phonics check, the proportion of pupils reaching the accepted standard has risen from 58% to 81%. The proportion of good and outstanding primary schools has risen in the past five years from 69% to 90%. Ofsted reports that the focus on reading and synthetic phonics has been a particular strength. However, my noble friend is right about the importance of primary, because those pupils who do not achieve level 4 when they leave primary school have only a 6% chance of getting five good GCSEs.

My Lords, the Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, perhaps underestimates what is involved in the teaching of reading. Children who have difficulty with reading require specialised help from teachers and teaching assistants in their preparation and supervision. As the Minister has conceded, a firm grasp of phonics is absolutely essential, which may not apply to volunteers. Children in the poorest families have lower literacy rates than their peers, yet last month the Government chose to abolish the child poverty unit. What effect does the Minister expect that to have on education policy and the attainment of poorer children?

The noble Lord is quite right that children from less advantaged families struggle more to read. They hear many fewer different words and we all know that hearing words at home is incredibly important, which is why we have to place such a strong emphasis on teaching phonics and other programmes such as Read Write Inc. and Talk for Writing, and on volunteer programmes to make sure that our pupils are literate at as early an age as possible.

My Lords, I am more than usually grateful. Are the Government confident that our teacher training—which, after all, underlies our whole education system, at primary school and so on—is doing enough to teach future teachers to teach children how to read? For instance, can the Government confirm that the phonic method is now actively promoted, instead of being eschewed, as it was for many years?

We have strengthened the teaching standards in this, and there is a clear expectation that teachers will be trained in phonics, particularly primary school teachers.