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Chris McGovern: To boost lamentable literacy standards, first teach the parents to read


The more time that parents devote to their children, the better those youngsters will do, both academically and in terms of their general life chances and well being. This is the research finding of the Centre for Social Investigation at Nuffield College, Oxford into the childhood origins of social mobility. It has been published by the Social Mobility Commission set up by the Government’s social mobility tsar, Alan Milburn.

The tsar seems to be genuinely flabbergasted by the discovery. He described it as “truly shocking”. Most people outside the rarefied world of educational research, however, will regard the report’s conclusion as yet another ‘expert’ statement of the ‘bleedin obvious’.

The researchers were, at least, able to quantify the amount of extra parental time middle class parents spend reading or playing with their kids, compared to children from working class backgrounds. It turns out to be around 40 minutes a day.

Government tsars have to act as well as commission research. Alan Milburn’s call to arms, though, has some worrying implications for mums and dads – “parenting can no longer be a no-go area for public policy.”

Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and accept that he is very well intentioned and that he surely means to help. The problem is that the State’s record on surrogate parenting is too full of horrors to merit much serious consideration. The Government would be wise to restrict its intervention to supporting parents rather than endeavouring to replace those whom they consider to be failing. What form, then, should this support for parents take?

Early reading support for their children should be at the heart of parenting. Mr. Milburn, too, has drawn  this conclusion. I wonder, though, if he understands the extent of the problem or if he appreciates how deeply bedded within the educational establishment are the root causes of the current gap between the literacy standards of the privileged and the under-privileged.

When I took over as chairman of governors of a seriously failing school in a deprived area of the south-east the extent of the problem really hit home. Explaining to many parents the urgent need to read to and with their children was fruitless when the parents, themselves, were unable to read or, at best, were very poor readers. The only way forward, in the first instance, was to teach the parents to read.

Over the past 30 years or so reading standards in our country have been in decline. Among developed nations, according to the OECD, we rank bottom in literacy. We are, also, the only country in the developed world in which grandparents have higher literacy levels than their grandchildren. Small wonder, then, that many parents from poor backgrounds are unable to read to their children and that this is having a ‘knock on’ effect with the current generation of pupils from deprived backgrounds.

If the Government wishes to close the attainment gap between privileged and under-privileged children, it should initiate an adult literacy campaign. Around 20 per cent of youngsters still leave school without a secure grasp of either literacy or numeracy. They are, in part, the casualties of the failed education reforms introduced by Ken Baker back in the 1980s that ‘educated’ their parents. These reforms  robbed today’s parents of the knowledge and skills to help their own children.

The zealous educational experts who duped Baker into giving statutory force under his National Curriculum to ineffective teaching methods should be dragged out of retirement and required to teach the illiterates that are their legacy. Baker’s children deserve some restitution of the education they missed out on and so do Baker’s children’s children.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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