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What's so special about literacy?

It’s almost impossible to argue against the importance of literacy. Low literacy is associated with lower earnings and employment rates, particularly for women. Failure to master basic literacy skills costs the public purse up to £64,000 over an individual’s lifetime; this amounts to £2.5 billion every year. It’s therefore no surprise that improving literacy has been a key component of successive government’s education strategies for many years.

A simple way to judge these strategies is to look at the impact that they had on those that need them most, and in this case that would be those learners with literacy difficulties.

Ten years ago, just as the National Strategies were coming to an end, Sir Jim Rose was asked by the then Labour government to conduct a review and make recommendations on the identification and teaching of children with dyslexia. The subsequent Rose Review suggested the creation of specialist teachers, a policy that the Labour government adopted pledging £10 million for specialist training.

Whilst ten years is not so long in education (a pupil in reception in 2009 would only just be choosing their GCSE options now), it is an eternity in education policy. The past ten years have seen five different secretaries of state for education, and more literacy strategies than you can shake a stick at. Some of these are founded in an evidence base and have stuck, for example systematic synthetic phonics. Others, like specialist teachers, seem to have gone by the wayside.

New research by Driver Youth Trust found that a third of local authorities don’t have any of these specialist teachers and nearly three quarters of school leaders report that they do not have access to one. But is this because there aren’t enough, or is it because the policy of specialist teachers is itself based on a deficit model?

Vital resources

The past ten years have seen the rapid growth of a school-led self-improving system. Top-down, supply-led policies – like the National Strategies or the training of specialist teachers – have been replaced by the language of autonomous school groups and a demand-driven system. During this time, we have also seen the implementation of the SEN Code of Practice which puts the emphasis on all teachers doing more to support pupils at the universal level. This doesn’t mean that we don’t need specialists, but their role does need to be presented as a more relevant and valuable resource within this environment.     

So, what does this mean for the present policy cycle? There are certainly some lessons here about ensuring different strategies are better joined up. But the opportunity also seems ripe, with Ofsted encouraging a greater focus on curriculum, to ensure that literacy becomes a more coherent strategy, particularly for those who struggle in this area.

And as for literacy provision at school level? Teachers and school leaders have always known that this area is vital. Without literacy, the curriculum itself is inaccessible. For the majority of learners, literacy is within the gift of every teacher. But for the small minority that find literacy most challenging, I hope that the new literacy hubs will include a new breed of specialist expertise that can help to raise the bar for literacy for all pupils in your school.  

Karen Wespieser
Director of Operations, Driver Youth Trust
Posted: 27/02/2019 11:41:10