Tackling illiteracy

I have to admit to not being fond of the way that political parties interact with the media before a general election. Policy tends to get broken down into bite-sized chunks that will fit into a one column story or a two minute video clip on the news. There is no room for any detail.

Plaid Cymru is as much prone to this as any other party. On Wednesday we were presented with "Four election pledges for a better Wales" and one of these was:

Plaid wants to halve the number of children leaving primary schools with inadequate literacy and numeracy by 2016 and end it by 2020 - a pledge the party says will cost £9 per pupil a year.

To end illiteracy within ten years at a cost of only £9 per child per year ... you'd need to be mad not to jump at the idea. It would still be worth doing if it cost ten times that much. But you'd need to be equally mad to think that it was as simple as handing over a ten pound note at the start of each school year.

So where's the detail? The first port of call should be Plaid's own website, for even if it's unreasonable to expect the media to report all the detail, I would at least expect to find the details there. But this is the page, and there's no detail to be found anywhere on it, not even a link to a place where it can be found. Instead we just have soundbites about "raising the game" and "stepping up to the plate". This is not good enough.

Now I don't want to pre-empt some dramatic announcement about the details of this policy, for I don't actually know what they are. But I've got a pretty good idea of what they should be, because I know of only one proven example of eradicating illiteracy at such a low cost.


In 1997, West Dunbartonshire Council in Scotland embarked on a programme to eradicate illiteracy within ten years, and they succeeded. A good description of how they did it appeared in this report in the Guardian in 2007:

Sounds incredible

Once upon a time, in a deprived part of Scotland, a plan was put into place to wipe out pupil illiteracy within a decade. Ten years on, it's worked.


When the project was launched, West Dunbartonshire had one of the poorest literacy rates in the UK, with 28% of children leaving primary school at 12 functionally illiterate - that is, with a reading age of less than nine years and six months. Last year, that figure had dropped to 6% and, by the end of this year, it is expected to be 0%.

In all, 60,000 children have been assessed, and evaluations show that children now entering primary 3 have an average reading age almost six months higher than previous groups. In 1997, 5% of primary school children had "very high" scores on word reading; today the figure is 45%. Across the UK, it is estimated that 100,000 pupils a year leave school functionally illiterate.

Guardian, 10 July 2007

So why didn't everybody else jump at the idea? We'll actually they did ... but, they picked up on the headline issues without understanding why it worked.

The headline idea is synthetic phonics, and the Labour government jumped on it with a vengeance. But it is a huge mistake to think that initiatives of this sort can simply be dictated by a government minister. We cannot say "teach synthetic phonics" as if it were some sort of magic bullet. To illustrate that, I'd like to draw people's attention to a report by Tom Burkard where he says:

West Dunbartonshire shows that more central control is not the solution to the country’s educational problems. Indeed, it is the problem. The power of a successful example – such as West Dunbartonshire – can do more than yet more well-intentioned but inevitably doomed top-down government edicts.

A World First for West Dunbartonshire - The elimination of reading failure

And it is in this respect that Plaid, with its inbuilt commitment to the principle of decentralization, has a much better perspective than has been shown by Labour ... a party that seems always to think that things can be solved by setting out more and more new sets of standards which schools are then expected to adhere to. The Welsh government should enable, by drawing attention to good practice and by providing the appropriate resources, not dictate.

The report goes on to say that the problem of functional illiteracy needs to be addressed in more than one context:

The success of the West Dunbartonshire Literacy Initiative can be attributed to three factors:

•  Firstly, there is the political context. Schools and local authorities in Scotland are largely free from the centralised managerialism that afflicts schools in England. Although the West Dunbartonshire Literacy Initiative has received the full support of the Scottish Executive, most of the important decisions have been made at a local level.

•  Secondly, there is the administrative context. Successful innovation has relied on co-operation, not coercion. Dr Tommy MacKay, the driving force behind the West Dunbartonshire programme, has gained the confidence of everyone in West Dunbartonshire – from council leaders and officials down to school dinner ladies. As an outside contractor, he has not had any power to tell people what to do and has achieved change by inspiration and the power of ideas.

•  Lastly, there is the educational context. In England and Wales, it is assumed that 20% of children will have ‘special needs’ – usually meaning that they cannot read and write. Faced with a child who is slow to learn to read, teachers and psychologists tend to think in terms of what is wrong with the child – and not what is wrong with the teaching. This cycle of low expectations and reading failure can be broken.

One sentence in particular is worth repeating:

Faced with a child who is slow to learn to read, teachers and psychologists tend to think in terms of what is wrong with the child – and not what is wrong with the teaching.

Now there are some things in the report which aren't quite right, in particular the way that it treats England and Wales together. Yet it should surely be obvious that if Scotland can do what England cannot, then there is no reason why we in Wales shouldn't follow them.


As I said, I do not know what Plaid politicians are going to say when they are asked to give details of how Wales should tackle the problem of illiteracy. I only hope the answer they give will be along these lines.

Update - 10:30, 8 April 2011

John Dixon has just left a comment reminding me that Nerys Evans was interviewed by the Western Mail in January, and specifically referred to the West Dumbartonshire Literary Initiative as a model for what Plaid are proposing. This is from the article:

Key proposals include:

•  a comprehensive “synthetic phonics” programme for all children going through the three-to-seven foundation phase

•  a safety-net programme during the eight-to-13 phase for those who by the age of seven, need extra and intensive tuition

•  efforts to change attitudes to reading so it is not just seen as a school activity or associated with homework.

Western Mail, 31 January 2011

So I'm sorry for not having remembered this. I only wish that there was an obvious link to a place on the Plaid website where such information was available so that I didn't need to rely on John's memory.

I want to say again that I'm not singling out Plaid, for doing politics by press release and couple of appropriate quotes to a reporter is something done by all parties. It's a format that the media can easily digest and respond to. But I expect more from Plaid than from other parties.

In just the same way as Madoc Batcup's article here and on ClickOnWales explained the thinking behind the Build for Wales proposal—something that was badly needed because the media quite obviously didn't really understand what it was about—I would want something similar for this proposal on literacy, and for Plaid's other manifesto promises too. If Nerys or someone in her research team wants to write such an article, I'd be glad to post it here on Syniadau.

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John Dixon said...

"I only hope the answer they give will be along these lines."

So do I. The lack of detail behind headline proposals is disturbing (and it's something of which all the parties are guilty).

Plaid's approach seems to be based on the Dunbartonshire approach (see this story), although the current Education Minister says this is already being progressed.

Therre's still a lack of detail on the 'how' though, and I think you are right to express a degree of concern when you say "it is a huge mistake to think that initiatives of this sort can simply be dictated by a government minister". I fear that there is a natural tendency amongst politicians (again, in all parties) to believe that central dictat through new laws is the way in which things are changed.

MH said...

Damn it, John! I missed that story in the Western Mail. Or I probably did read it, and it slipped into my subconscious rather than conscious memory.

I'll add an update. However I'm glad that there is more detail out there, even if only in the form of the press release and quotes that Nerys gave in January. I just wish it had been referred to this time round.

I also note that Nerys said back then:

“Our children are being let down as things stand and that is simply not acceptable. Instead of asking why a child is failing, we need to ask why the teaching method is failing the child.”

Which either shows that she read the Tom Burkard report, or that great minds think alike.

Anonymous said...

Could I raise the question of innumeracy also? My children were totally numerate going in to primary school, they could count, they were relaxed about numbers. They even knew their times tables ( or at least the important ones). By the time they were 7 they had been totally confused and had lost all confidence in their own abilities - the reason? Modern methods, and teachers who were more scared of maths than they were!

My solution to this would be to separate calculation from mathematics, from the start. Don't try to teach children the theory behind adding and subtracting ( which z-blocks, which you will find in any primary school, try to do) just teach them how to do it. Likewise tables. 7x8, and that part of the times table, is the hardest part. Just teach them that, rote. Not the "1x1=1" and all the way up, which still happens in primary school. To get to 7x8 takes you several minutes, if you are good!

Percentages and decimals - the idea that you move the numbers and leave the decimal point in the same is not only confusing, it is plain wrong! And it is still the prevailing method in schools today! As a mathematician myself, I know that the easiest method is always the best, and moving the decimal point is how all numerate people do it. Why deprive our children of that knowledge?

Calculation is a basic life skill, Mathematics is a mental discipline. We all need Calculation, but not many of us need mathematics. At the moment, children are being deprived of the ability to operate in the real world because people are conflating the two, and putting the 'mathematical' side ahead of the basic skills.

Carl Morris said...

My comment http://quixoticquisling.com/2011/04/press-release-as-blog-post-drives-me-mad/

Anonymous said...

Venezuela eradicated illiteracy in the past ten years- though looking for models closer to home obviously makes more sense.

MH said...

Point taken, Siônnyn. You could also call it the difference between mathematics and arithmetic. I have a friend (he's a Tory, and based in England) who has developed a business writing basic "old fashioned maths books", and now he runs a weekend school that employs several teachers with something like a thousand children attending for an hour or two of lessons.


Thanks, Carl. I agree entirely. The internet gives us all the space we need to go into as much detail as anybody could want. I've asked several times if Plaid's research papers could be put on line as they are published. Not necessarily to reflect official Plaid policy but as a forum for developing it. Of course the stuff is probably out there, but cross-referencing and linking to it is the problem.


We do need to be careful about comparing like with like, Anon. For example, if we look at this table the UK has a literacy rate of 99%.

But like "poverty" and "relative poverty" there is "illiteracy" and "functional illiteracy". However there doesn't seem to be a firm definition of what constitutes functional illiteracy. I've seen it described as having no more than the reading age of an eight or nine year old. The Burkard report I referred to says this in one of the footnotes:

A survey undertaken by the Shannon Trust, a charity devoted to literacy in prisons, found that around 38% of adult prisoners are described as having no useful literacy skills, while a further 29% have a reading age below that of an eight-year-old.

The Guardian, 8 August 2006

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