Was the Prime Minister right when he said that poor teaching is solely to blame for the number of adults that can’t read?

Janet Downs's picture
“It is a tragedy that too many adults in our country do not have proper literacy and reading skills, because of not being taught properly at school,” said PM David Cameron. But is he correct in saying that poor teaching is the only cause?

The National Literacy Trust’s manifesto for literacy stressed teachers’ central role in promoting literacy. However, it recognised they couldn’t work alone – they needed to be part of a nationwide literacy programme. The manifesto recommended that the Government:

1 Implement the recommendations of the Bercow Review of speech, language and communication. These include monitoring young children’s communication skills during progress checks.

2 Recognise that parents are children’s first teachers. The Government should provide advice about the importance of communication skills and provide grants for parent groups to buy books.

3 Supplement phonic-based teaching of reading with strategies designed to promote reading enjoyment.

4 Incorporate new media to develop children’s literacy in the primary curriculum.

5 Ensure that school reports include evidence of reading skills and enjoyment.

6 Repeat the Skills for Life survey to discover which groups need literacy support.

7 Launch a national campaign to highlight the importance of literacy.

The Government is right to stress the negative consequences of illiteracy. However, it has ignored the improvement in literacy levels during the last nine years. The 2011 Skills for Life survey showed a 13% rise in the number of 16-65 year olds achieving Level 2 or above in literacy (57%). Mr Cameron did not praise teachers for their part in increasing the proportion of 16-18 years olds reaching Level 2 by 13% since 2003.

Mr Cameron didn’t say that parental involvement was crucial. Instead, he solely blamed teachers before praising Secretary of State, Michael Gove, for pushing phonics. The Government’s fixation on phonics alone doesn’t recognise that most teachers teach them already – what’s needed is more work on comprehension. The Department for Education (DfE) does recognise the importance of parents but the advice on its website is aimed at teachers and librarians. And Michael Gove, remember, was responsible for cutting the funding for Bookstart in 2010. Partial funding was restored only after a national outcry.

The manifesto recommended that school reports show how much their children enjoy books. From 2012 Parents will be given the results of their child’s Year 1 phonics test – it’s unclear whether this includes information on reading enjoyment.

What steps are being taken to promote a national campaign stressing the importance of literacy? There is the “Just Read” campaign but this is geared to schools. The Welsh Government has launched a nationwide reading campaign to start immediately while the English Government has announced a reading competition to start in the autumn. It’s a step in the right direction but, again, it targets only schools.

The Government has a crucial role to play in promoting a nationwide literacy strategy which covers all ages starting at birth. Instead, it squanders opportunities to do so because it can’t resist the temptation to criticise teaching.

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Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 18/05/2012 - 15:26


Of course parental involvement is crucial, but it seems safe to assume that those parents who are sufficiently well educated to help their children read do already do so. If you have evidence of significant numbers of the offspring of university educated professionals lagging in literacy through parental neglect, please share it with us.

Which leaves us with the actually existing problem.

If a child isn't a fluent and independent reader by the end of Year 2, then an alarm should go off. Once heard, that leaves the primary school four whole school years to fix it.

How is it that children are arriving at secondary schools with poorer reading skills than the better 7 year olds? It has to be down to the teaching, doesn't it?

One way to find out - and to which your talents for research would seem well-suited - would be to check whether those primaries found by Ofsted to be deficient in this area, and which have subsequently been put in special measures or become part of school improvement partnerships, end up producing fewer illiterates as a result of the uplift in teaching quality.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 18/05/2012 - 17:48

"If a child isn’t a fluent and independent reader by the end of Year 2, then an alarm should go off. Once heard, that leaves the primary school four whole school years to fix it."

In Finland children don't start school until the equivalent of our Year 3. That's when they start to learn to read.

eJD8owE1's picture
Fri, 18/05/2012 - 18:55

"In Finland children don’t start school until the equivalent of our Year 3. That’s when they start to learn to read."

Is that so? Or do many parents effectively teach their children themselves? How do you have children who are 7 or 8 around text and keep the knowledge of what it means from them? Indeed, why would you? What do you do to children who are curious about the marks on the page when they're being read to?

Allan Beavis's picture
Fri, 18/05/2012 - 19:01

eDJtokyo9ypN1 -

Taking literalism this far really does redefine navel gazing!

eJD8owE1's picture
Sat, 19/05/2012 - 07:16

So do you believe that delaying schools teaching reading would reduce or increase social division? Children from disadvantaged backgrounds would be denied access to text for an additional four years in Rebecca's world, while those from backgrounds which valued literacy would of course be taught to read. There are nutters who are frightened of books and don't think children should be able to read: Steiner schools exist for them (although there's a pretty major industry in post-Steiner regrets). But I think children being able to read is a good thing: why on earth would you think that 9 year olds being unable to read was a _good_ thing? I don't for a second believe these accounts of countries in which no-one learns to read until then, any more than I believe other accounts of Potemkin villages told by gullible tourists.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 19/05/2012 - 08:02

Good question.

There seems to be a social as well as a school culture in Finland that play is more important than study for young children. At 6 (year 2) they have the option to go to school half days to learn to 'be school ready' and they get foundation skills for reading and writing - rather like out children get at nursery.

When they start school they have much longer breaks. Play is still considered to be important. Both teachers and students are in the classroom for about an hour less each day. The teachers spend their extra time on collaboration and other planning and management issues.

As the last question for the evening somebody asked Pasi Sahlberg - 'If you could offer us one bit of advice to improve our education system, what would it be?' And his answer was to let our children play more.

Their aim has always been to have the most equitable education system in the world so I think your suggestion that delaying school increases social division is disproved eJD8owE1. However to explain that it's essential to understand that education is personalised and great attention paid to children who are struggling and children with special needs as soon as they start school. This is a very sound approach given our understanding of child development which is that until the age of 7 children will develop different abilities at different times and there's not much you can do about that. So it's difficult to diagnose a child's particular learning needs before then unless they are obviously physiological/medical.

At my son's primary they have a Montessori inspired EYFS/KS1 where the inputs of social learning are the main concern (with regular bits of foundation literacy and numeracy in the background) until year 2 when there is a big personalised shake-down to ensure all students are reading and are pretty much numerate and can write. Having seen this in action I do actually think it could be delayed until year 3 and then done with less stress and more efficacy. But it has to be done in year 2 because of SATS.

eJD8owE1's picture
Fri, 18/05/2012 - 16:32

"Recognise that parents are children’s first teachers. The Government should provide advice about the importance of communication skills and provide grants for parent groups to buy books."

For most of the past three generations, teachers have been telling us that learning to read is much to difficult for mere parents to even begin to help with, and opaque and counter-intuitive schemes have been erected ("ITA", "Look and Say", "Real Books") in order to convince parents that their help is not needed, and the professionals are the only people who know what to do. Now those strategies have failed, we have articles like this, blaming parents for not doing enough. Make your mind up. How were parents supposed to help with ITA, which they could not read? How were parents supposed to help with "Look and Say", when everything they knew about reading said that letters make sounds?

If, as was received wisdom for thirty years, parents should not attempt to teach their children to read, the teaching profession that hardly complain when they are blamed for adult illiteracy. They excluded parents, indeed went out of their way to exclude parents, so they could show what experts they were. The least they can then do is take responsibility for the results.

We now have a generation of parents who were badly taught, who often have spelling difficulties as well because the teaching orthodoxy was that spelling didn't matter, and who therefore do not have the confidence to help their children. Fixing that is hard.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 18/05/2012 - 17:59

"We now have a generation of parents who were badly taught, who often have spelling difficulties as well because the teaching orthodoxy was that spelling didn’t matter, and who therefore do not have the confidence to help their children. Fixing that is hard."

Here are three suggestions.

Firstly use shared online systems (which schools and parents can access) which track what's been done and suggest appropriate things children can be doing at home. These can be annotate by videos for inspiration. Parents can be offered many alternative ways they can help their children and suggestions regarding what things suit different children. There can be discussion forums to help.

Secondly, when we think about the literacy and numeracy we want our students to be doing past the age of 16, offer them options in teaching young children one-to-one which are designed to let them review the basics with an older perspectives, become confident in working with young children (which would be great for our child carers and nursery workers in particular) and, as you've pointed out the need for eJD8owE1, to make them good and confident parents when it comes to helping their own children.

Thirdly, we should be looking a how primary schools can become hubs which link people with time on their hands (particularly experience parents/empty nesters) with families who need extra support. It doesn't matter how good you are at helping your own children, if you're a single mum with 3 kids or parents with children with disabilities you're going to struggle to create the space to do it. Let's have volunteers going in (with the permission of the parents of course) to help particular children by playing with them and helping them with their reading and homework and generally giving them high quality one-to-one time away from the classroom.

Allan Beavis's picture
Fri, 18/05/2012 - 18:05

EwP0zf89E2 -

But it can be fixed if there is the political will to fix it. Again, what is so depressing about your comments is the tone that "this is how it is, shame it's that way but the problems are so entrenched any challenge to the status quo or passion for genuine radical reform is up against a brick wall. It reminds me of Hamlet's intellectual confusion and inertia and look where it got him.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 19/05/2012 - 08:55

eJF80wE1 - at no time have teachers told parents not to read to their children. Neither have parents been told not to communicate with their children. You are confusing parents providing a firm foundation for literacy and the formal teaching of reading. Reading to children, talking with them, enjoying books - these are included in the list of activities which predispose children to become literate (see further info below). Teachers have never discouraged these. On the contrary such activities have been encouraged. The Plowden Report recommended greater involvement between parents and schools and gave this positive example:

"Other schools write to parents when their children first enter school and suggest ways in which they can help - such as by reading to them and hearing them read."

That was 1967.



Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 19/05/2012 - 08:56

eJD8owE1 - Where is the evidence to your sweeping statement that there is now "a generation of parents who were badly taught"? Evidence from the 2011 Skills for Life survey show that literacy levels are falling (see post).

That shouldn't, however, induce complacency. Illiteracy is a serious problem for those who cannot read or write sufficiently to cope with everyday life. However, the PM's suggestion that poor teaching alone is to blame for poor literacy in adults (who range from age 16-65) is simplistic.

Tim Bidie's picture
Fri, 18/05/2012 - 18:49

They named a cigar after him!

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 19/05/2012 - 09:50

In its report, “Removing Barriers to Literacy”, Ofsted found there were still pupils who failed to acquire adequate literacy skills even when the schools visited were successful. Ofsted listed these barriers to literacy:

1Marked speech delay
2Impoverished linguistic experience
3Low aspirations in the home
4Few settled routines or clear boundaries for behaviour
5Poor attendance
6A reluctance by parents/carers to engage with school
7Limited experience of life beyond the immediate community.
8Socio-economic and cultural factors
9Health and welfare difficulties
10Additional learning needs not identified earlier

Ofsted found that even when pupils could successfully decode words they couldn’t ascribe meaning to the words – decoding doesn’t imply understanding.

Yet according to the PM, schools are solely to blame for poor literacy skills and phonics alone produces literate pupils.


Allan Beavis's picture
Sat, 19/05/2012 - 10:53

Thanks for this Janet. Good reminder that schools can't be blamed solely for poor literacy skills.

What is so depressing about the stupidity of Cameron's claims, is that he and his secretary for education are quick to lay the blame on, and make, schools and teachers accountable for poor performance but they refuse to be held accountable for implementing social and educational policies which increase social deprivation, widen the socio-economic gap and virtually close down social mobility.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 19/05/2012 - 20:10

Hmm, based on this I'm going to make a suggestion for discussion.

We have a massive primary place issue to solve. People are talking about the need to build over 400 new schools and the impossibility of doing that in urban areas where there is no space. We are also heading for a £1.5trillion deficit which is pretty much beyond imaginable and clearly the proverbial is going to hit the fan sometime soon.

So why don't we consider offering infant streams which are half time? You could have one group doing full days Mondays and mornings Tues Wed Thurs and the other doing 3 afternoons and a Friday. The teaching cost would be halved so parents who participate could have some vouchers for extra activities, some online resources, and some one-to-one support to help them make the most of the extra time they have with their children.

Not all primary schools would cope with or want to do this but some would and could.

Not all parents would want it but some would absolutely love it. Lots have serious reservations about their children doing too much school to young but have no other option apart from home schooling but really they want a blend of having more input into their kids but their children still have some of the social experience of school and the expertise of teachers.

We've been chatting about the good results in Hong Kong - where all primary schools are double shift right the way through. When I taught there I taught in one of the 'after school club venues' which ran all sorts of wonderful activities for children during the extra time they then had free all day.

I think that during infants we should be tracking students by inputs only but that we should also be monitoring for potential problems (and intervening before formal education begins) - medical issues of course but also all the things Janet lists.

Comments please.

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