How to help children succeed (and how not to do it)

You know how it goes. If you have anything to do with schools, children, learning, books or reading then you only ever get a couple of days of relief. Just maybe a weekend or a quiet Wed/Thurs when the world seems alright and you don’t want to go out into the street and howl with rage and kick a lamppost or throttle a politician. But then you are reminded of where we are in 2017 in the UK and the madness of what is happening to education right now. 

Take this morning. I was just settling down to do a some research when I read that teachers are fuming because of the SATs marking. 10 and 11 year-olds have been penalised for making their commas too straight in English exams. Or writing their semi-colons too high. Examples of this were posted by teachers and picked up by The Guardian (read the piece here). 

It’s just another example of the way that politicians have steered education recently. In a blind attempt to ‘raise standards’ they have let pedants and soulless data analysts find new ways for young children to fail. These people have no peers when it comes to making learning meaningless (‘fronted adverbials’), arcane, boring and stressful. No wonder teachers are leaving in droves and the ones that hang in there are telling me that increasing numbers of primary school kids are having serious mental health issues. How can we let this happen? 

Furthermore this obsession with written testing and a narrow focus on grammar, spelling and punctuation simply goes on to widen the literacy gap. Children with supportive parents or who read a lot or who have an academic disposition do well while those lacking these things are often doomed to be branded as failures and drop further behind. Their lives are made a misery by schools desperately cramming them with the linguistic tripping points and difficult concepts which they hate. They end up doing more of what makes them anxious and frustrated. We’ve brought the stress-ridden GCSE exam culture into primary schools. Hey, struggling kids, why fail at 16 when you can fail at 10?

But here’s the real madness. There is a way to get children to improve their English which is FUN. There is a route to raising standards, particularly for struggling kids, which is not stressful. There is a way to close the literacy gap instead of widening it and making social mobility harder. It’s called reading for pleasure. 

There is a large amount of authoritative research which reveals that children who read for pleasure improve not only their academic performance and understanding but have superior levels of knowledge, empathy, concentration and increased life chances. Here are some examples from reputable sources: 

Reading for pleasure closes the literacy gap. So why doesn’t the government pour resources into getting children reading? Why don’t we let children improve their English by encouraging to read books that they enjoy? Why don’t we put the focus on getting parents to understand this instead the current destructive mania for tests, targets, data, expectations, passing and failing? Here’s some more research:

And some from last month:

Click that small-print paragraph/image above because it’s important. 14 year-olds who read for pleasure are over 3 years ahead of their non-reading peers. THREE YEARS!

So how can we get young people to choose to read in an age of technological distractions, constant screen-noise and a lack of widespread parental recognition or political support? Children need motivating. The best source of motivation is inspiration. Who can provide inspiration? 

Authors. Books need advocates and who is better to enthuse and excite a young person about a book than the person who birthed the idea, who created the characters, who devised the cunning plot, who unearthed the amazing facts, who wrote the jokes? A school author visit can be a turning point in a child’s life. Read how this happened when I visited a school, here. And it has happened on several other occasions.

Sadly, school author visits have become rarer in recent years as budgets have been cut (government undermining it’s own stated aims again…) and even worse it’s often the case that the schools who do still bring in inspirational authors to get kids reading are those in wealthier areas or they’re independent schools. Hence the literacy gap grows. All children need inspiring to read but especially those in the most disadvantaged parts of the country. 

I would love to see school spending Pupil Premium money bringing authors into schools and firing up children to reach for books. Nothing creates a buzz like a brilliant author visit. So, let’s get children succeeding by reading, not by endlessly cramming and testing them. Get in touch and I will bring some inspiration.


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