It has taken a few days for me to write this, simply because the Evening Standard front page two days ago left me in the sort of rage that doesn’t lend itself to blog posts. ‘A city of children who cannot read’, screamed the oh-so sensationalist headline. Cue pages and pages of so-called insightful journalism. I read all the pages, took a few moments in a dark room and decided to take a tactical pause.
Congratulations, Evening Standard, for a) pointing out the bleeding obvious to anyone who teaches and b) managing to make a pig’s ear of the whole thing. Thanks to organisations like FullFact, who have unpicked the statistics the Evening Standard used, it is clear that the numbers alone don’t add up. What bothers me most about the whole thing is the lack of clarity on what the actual issue is.
My hackles went up when I read the articles because, as is so often the case with articles about education, the implication is that somehow teachers are getting things wrong, that we aren’t educating the nation’s children and ensuring that they are capable of fitting into the capitalist machine as productive and efficient citizens. It seemed that the Evening Standard couldn’t really decide who to point the finger at. They started with schools (“this goes to the heart of our education system”) and moved swiftly to the government ( “years of government initiatives and investment have failed”). The full article decided to focus on the “plight” of poor Aurelia, who doesn’t have a single book in her home. It would seem at this point, the Evening Standard had defaulted to its usual editorial standpoint: let’s blame the immigrants. Aurelia and her mother are clearly recently arrived Eastern Europeans. Most teachers will agree that the rate of language acquisition of newly arrived Eastern European children is quite phenomenal. Were the Evening Standard blaming Aurelia’s mother for not being able to speak English fluently and therefore, aid Aurelia’s progress at school? Again, unclear. Taking the Evening Standard’s statistics, “72,00 British schoolchildren [are] arriving at high school every year unable to read to the expected level”. Is Aurelia one of these children?
I am bewildered, dear reader, most bewildered.
At times like these, when the truth is hidden underneath mountains of statistical excrement, I try to focus on what I know. Sometimes, I can find comfort in this place, sometimes I just work myself into a minor frenzy and have to be brought back down with a nice glass of wine and some Choco Leibniz.
What I know, after eight years in teaching, is this: some children come to secondary school not able to read fluently. It’s not as simple as those who can and those who can’t. Some students read words well, but don’t have any comprehension of what they are reading. Some find it hard to decipher words, but when they have, they understand it perfectly. Some students, like Aurelia, arrive with a whole other language and learn English, slowly and usually to ‘playground proficiency’.
Are you still with me?
The issue of books has nothing to do with Aurelia. The issue of books is complex and related, as much as we all hate to admit it, to the class system and the value parents place on education. Ruth Lupton (2006) points out ‘most working class parents think education is important but they see it as something that happens in the school, not the home’. Various studies on the link between attainment and socio-economic status have pointed out the correlation between working class households, poor rates of literacy, the lack of engagement in school life and poor prospects.
When the Evening Standard so haphazardly points out that there is a city of children who apparently can’t read, they conveniently forget that by the time a child arrives in my classroom, it is a catch-up game they often can’t win. That child may not be able to read and this, funnily enough, is not the fault of the education system. They conveniently omit the fact that reading begins at a very early age, in the home, with a parent. The child sees that reading is valuable; they may see their parent reading a novel, or a newspaper – it doesn’t matter what it is – they see that reading is something important.
So the opposite happens when parents dismiss their own responsibility for the education of the children they have brought into the world. If education is something that happens in schools, and schools alone, what chance do those children have? Children learn their habits from their parents, they absorb values and they take on the messages presented by their parents’ every day actions. If the message is ‘this household does not see reading as important’, then regardless of whether there are books in the house or not, they will not read. It is rare in our schools to meet students who literally do not have a book in the house. It is more likely that their parents have indulged the idea that the PlayStation or the X-Box is more important. The games console takes pride of place in the living room.
The Evening Standard wants to shock us by declaring the levels of illiteracy in London. It would be more revolutionary to point out the elephant that has been rotting in the room for far too many years without mention. It is poverty of parenting that perpetutates the damning cycle of low socio-economic status in this country. It is poverty of parenting that causes children to reject educational activities. It is poverty of parenting, intentional or not, that leads to children who cannot read.