The drive to raise reading standards

Julie Healy, Ready To Learn Manager at Barnardo’s Northern Ireland, writes about the charity’s Ready to Learn programme which was set up with the aim of raising the standard of literacy achievement in schools here.

Completing school and gaining basic literacy skills are fundamental tasks in order to succeed and enjoy life yet too many children from disadvantaged backgrounds fall behind soon after they start school and often fail to catch up.

Poor reading standards have led to the long standing and disturbing statistic that a quarter of adults in Northern Ireland lack basic literacy and numeracy skills and a recent report by Kathryn Torney in The Detail outlined how thousands of post-primary pupils are failing key literacy and numeracy targets.

Barnardo’s NI has been working in schools over the past ten years and today we have a presence in nearly 180 schools through a variety of education and family support programmes.

We understand the need for children to have the fundamental literacy skills in order to learn, enjoy school, good health and well being, gain employment and fully engage with society.

We are also aware that children from disadvantaged areas can be as much as one year behind their peers from more affluent areas from the age of three and that the gap widens as they get older.

The gap is illustrated by the literacy gulf between grammar and non-grammar schools and by the disproportionately low GCSE results of children entitled to free school meals which are less than half of those achieved by other young people.

Literacy is strongly linked with educational achievement, which in turn is linked to employment and earning potential.

Internationally, levels of low literacy are highest in areas of deprivation, highlighting the important role of literacy as potential route out of poverty.

Three of the 20 UK council areas with the highest rates of child poverty are in Northern Ireland – Belfast, Londonderry and Strabane. We ignore the role of literacy in tackling this at our peril.

Living in poverty with low levels of literacy creates a mutually reinforcing cycle that is difficult to break, leaving families and even entire communities vulnerable to increased inequality and a lack of social mobility.

Knowing the importance of early intervention and based on research into out-of-school-hours learning which shows that pupils who take part can show improvement in achievement and behaviour, we wanted to try and tackle underachievement in literacy.

In July 2007 we received a grant from Atlantic Philanthropies to develop an evidence based approach to reading and maths skills in areas of disadvantage. The grant led to the creation of ‘Ready To Learn’ a literacy rich after school programme.

The concept was simple, three extra hours of literacy a week after school for children starting P1 in 2010 following them through to the end of P3 in 2013.

There was also a strong emphasis on parental involvement with parents encouraged to participate in the classes and read at home.

Nine primary schools from disadvantaged areas were selected to receive Ready To Learn and were measured against seven control schools in a randomised control trial.

Our Ready To Learn journey coincided with two landmark reports from the Northern Ireland Audit Office on literacy and numeracy. The first in 2006 and the second in 2013 just prior to the end of our trial.

The first report highlighted the fact that despite the Department of Education investing almost £40 million in literacy and numeracy programmes, a quarter of children were still leaving primary school with under developed skills.

In 2013 a new Northern Ireland Audit Office report revealed encouraging results from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) which showed a high proportion of P6 children performing at the highest level. However stubborn pockets of under-achievement remained with one in six children still failing to reach the expected level by the end of primary school.

These reports clearly highlight the challenges in raising achievement. The factors leading to under-achievement are complex and can include low aspirations from family/community and/or school, a delay in acquiring pre-literacy skills and a lack of early support when problems emerge.

The evaluation of Ready To Learn was carried out by the Institute of Child Care Research at Queens’ University, Belfast and it reveals findings which are complex, which in part reflects the challenges of assessing such young children, but are promising.

Children who took part were found to have improved reading accuracy, reading comprehension and phonics against those who didn’t – which suggests Ready To Learn can make a positive difference in contrast to other after school literacy programmes.

And while it was unknown how many parents would agree to their children attending an after-school programme because it was not compulsory, almost all parents wanted their children to take part and attendance averaged 76% for the three years.

Overall we can take from the experience of Ready To Learn that additional learning time used well can contribute to improved literacy skills and could offer a valuable tool to help raise achievement.