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I remember parent interviews and that all too often if I dared to suggest that there was work to be done at home, the response was that these matters are the responsibility of schools. Parents think, “My children come here at 9 am and they leave at 3.30 pm. It is your
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responsibility.” That is a real and broad phenomenon. I would send home reading books every day, but with the full expectation that they would be brought back unsigned the next day, week or, indeed, month.

I understand why some of the pilot schemes have been focused on urban areas, because there is, of course, a huge need there, but there is also a need in rural areas such as those represented by me and other hon. Members. In a small village school with one underperforming child who has behavioural problems, the problem is magnified in the whole school community in the same way as with larger numbers of children in urban areas.

The “every child a reader” pilot is admirable—5,000 five and six-year-olds are being helped—but it is inevitably limited in its scope, and it will end in 2008. When I spoke to its director yesterday, she told me that she hopes that the experience of the pilot will win the hearts and minds of decision makers. I hope that the Minister will give us assurances about its future, its expansion and the promotion of such schemes after 2008. Will he also say something about rural areas?

In what environment, therefore, can reading be effectively taught to children who are perhaps two, three or more years behind their chronological reading age? Having taught classes ranging in size from 14 to 36 pupils, I know that the intensive catch-up programmes that are required cannot take place in a conventional class environment. Gone are the days when a teacher would dutifully hear children read every day, let alone teach those with particular difficulties. Early intervention is therefore the key. Normal teaching does not enable slow readers to catch up.

Although we are right to praise the work done by the increased numbers of classroom assistants and teachers, this debate is not about class sizes. Of course, reducing class sizes will help, and my party has a lot of good things to say about the issue, but what we need is more focused intervention.

Nor can measures to promote reading be latched on to special educational needs policy in schools. SEN budgets are tight, SEN timetables are often full on the action and action plus levels, and there is the issue of statementing. Yesterday, I spoke to a special needs teacher who said that

not only in year 1, but in years 5 and 6—

However, that teacher must rely on some of her children being away ill to fulfil the requirements of those who remain and give them the time that they need, even in her special needs classes. She strongly feels that she cannot deliver what is required without extra focused resources, and although I used to manage a small school improvement budget, it was never enough to supply anything other than the occasional focused support.

All that points to the need for bold, imaginative and direct intervention focused on books. There are instances of children who do not know how to open a book, let alone read one; they do not understand the mechanism of turning pages or what the little numbers in the corners are. We need to build in an approach that deals with such issues, because if we target them early on, we shall be making a long-term investment in the
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future. That will help children who simply do not read at home, who do not have books at home and who would not dream of going to a library. It will help boys who are uninterested in reading or who are fully aware that they are slipping behind the girls—there is a strong gender issue here, too.

A huge amount of pioneering work has been done in individual schools—it has been largely inspired by what has happened in New Zealand—and we have heard of the good work that is being done in Nottingham. However, I was struck by the thoughts of the educationist Barbara MacGilchrist, who wrote:

We need a joined-up approach at different levels of government in Scotland, Wales or England—I say that as someone who represents a Welsh constituency—to put the issue on the agenda. That approach was clearly articulated by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North.

However, this is not just about schools or the six hours for which I had children in my care—it is about the other 18 hours, too. A key component of any reading policy must be reading in the home. The overwhelming research evidence shows that a huge difference can be made when parents, neighbours, family members and carers get involved. I commend the work of the Family Reading Campaign and the BBC, which has been promoting reading and writing in a way that actively involves parents and particularly fathers—again, there is a gender issue here, because reading is left to the wife. I am quite proud of the fact that I was sitting reading the last chapter of “The Magic Faraway Tree” with my daughter on Sunday night. I do not know whether Enid Blyton is in vogue, but my daughter got a lot out of it. She was certainly stimulated by the experience, and both my three-year-old and my six-year-old are stimulated by the English and Welsh language books that come home from school. The aim must be to build parents’ confidence in their own literacy skills, although that is a huge job, and we have heard of the shortfall in the past.

Although there are issues about how Sure Start will be evaluated and about the way forward, it has made a big difference, particularly in the most deprived areas. In particular, I pay tribute to Book Start, which has been significant and has given many young children their first experience of books. It is managed by Booktrust, funded by Sure Start and delivered by libraries and local health services. My wife and I had twins just before Christmas, and I look forward to them having their bag of books from the local health service when they are a little older. Such measures have made a big difference for many families.

I commend the report produced by Jim Rose, which was commissioned by the DFES. In it, he states that

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That really is an endless task, and it needs clearer, focused direction at all levels of government.

Finally, let me say something about the key issues of teacher training and the training of experts in reading recovery. There are many failings in teacher training, and I endured a one-year postgraduate certificate of education course in which the education that I received in special needs was minimal. None the less, although the £20,000 salaries that we are talking about for intensive provision to promote reading will cost a lot, most of us here will agree that that cost is ultimately worth paying.

11.36 am

Meg Hillier (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr. O’Hara. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on securing this debate on a subject that is crucial not only to my constituency, but nationally. Initially, I want to say a little about where I come from on the issue and about the issues in my constituency.

I have been interested in the issue of reading and children since I became a secondary school governor in the early 1990s. I went into a special educational needs class and saw 11-year-olds struggling to read books that normal five and six-year-olds would have no struggle reading. At that point, I thought that I really needed to see what was going on in our primary schools, so I became a primary school governor and served as one for nine years. Since then, as a mother and an MP, I have seen how Sure Start, quality under-fives provision, literacy hour and reading recovery have made a difference.

Before he became Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend said that his priorities were “education, education, education”, and that script could have been written for Hackney. The challenges in Hackney schools and among Hackney’s children were, and still are, many. Population turnover is high and ranges from 25 to 30 per cent. of the total. That does not affect all schools, but it does affect a number. Only last summer, I visited a school with my noble Friend Lord Adonis, who is Minister with responsibility for London schools. Fewer than 20 per cent. of the year 6 pupils at that school had been there since reception. The school was in the middle of some dense council estates, and people were trying to find a way to move and leave the school. That created huge challenges not only for that school, but for many others.

Hackney also has higher than average numbers of children with English as a second language and on free school meals. In addition, there has been a lack of investment in school buildings over the years. It is worth paying tribute to the work done in my area by the London borough of Hackney, which has had its problems in the past. However, under the leadership of Hackney’s current mayor and the Learning Trust—the agency that now runs Hackney schools—some real hard work has been done. There has been a political focus on providing a framework and support in respect of buildings and resources so that teachers and our excellent head teachers can do their jobs properly. The
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approach in Hackney has been, “Let’s take what the Government have to offer and make it work for Hackney.” I therefore commend the Hackney experience to the Minister. If we can fix things in Hackney, that can be a real model for what can be done elsewhere.

Hackney schools really are schools plus. They work with children from some of the most challenging backgrounds, where alcohol and substance abuse are common. A lot of those children need child protection, but they intermingle with children who are perhaps from more stable backgrounds. However, our schools provide stability, and it is often the only stability that some of those children have in their chaotic lives.

Hackney schools have embraced extended schools fully. I visited a number of schools in my constituency during September, all of which offer breakfast clubs and after-school activities, and several of the secondary schools provide weekend and evening activities too. Indeed, the head teacher of the Hackney Free and Parochial Church of England secondary school said that she wants a cleaning contract in the school to run from 10 pm to 6 am, because that is the only time of the day, week, or year that the school is not being used, save for a week or two’s closure in the summer. I commend that model to other areas.

There is also a great deal of adult learning in English, information and communications technology and general literacy in our schools. They are opened up for the parents, who hit the system at the point where their child gets to primary or secondary school, and they are welcomed into Hackney schools. Family learning is a particularly important area for Hackney schools, and I want to give a couple of examples in that regard.

Burbage primary school’s head teacher, Karen Glenister, who is a visionary woman, has been working with parents to encourage them to learn about how to be better parents. She talks about one experience involving a parent who was called in a number of times because his son was being a little difficult. Originally he would say, “How dare you call me in? My son is an angel who never misbehaves, and you are picking on him.” Gradually, she won him round and got him to acknowledge that there were some difficulties, although not insoluble ones, with his son’s behaviour. She hooked him in to a parent support scheme, and at the end of the year, he turned up to the school smartly dressed in a suit and with a speech prepared. He asked whether he could make it as he was awarded his certificate for his adult learning experience. He spoke with great emotion about how his family life and his life as a father was so much better because of the support he had received through the primary school.

That picks up on points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North and the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) that reading recovery, although important, needs to be part of a wider whole and that parental support is also crucial.

Daubeney primary school in Homerton has just received a large sum of money over three years to ensure that it can provide family learning support of a similar nature. Those are just two examples, but all schools in Hackney are doing something. If the
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Minister would like to know more about this, I commend that he visit Hackney to see things for himself.

Thanks to Government investment, new buildings and new schools are being built in Hackney. Three new city academies have either been built or are on the way. Mossbourne community academy, our first one, received an outstanding Ofsted report just a couple of weeks ago. Great progress has been made, which has translated into results. This year, for the first time in many years, more than 50 per cent. of pupils in Hackney schools gained five or more A* to C-grade GCSEs—the actual figure was 51 per cent, which represents an increase of 4 per cent. from last year. Results in Hackney are improving three times faster than those in the rest of England.

Unfortunately, a Channel 4 programme recently decided to name Hackney as the worst place in Britain to live, but these results show that such programmes are living in the past. Perhaps people should visit Hackney and its schools to see how Hackney is definitely not the worst; I think it is one of the best places in Britain.

We have also benefited from other national schemes such as Book Start, which runs from birth, Sure Start for all under-fives and the effect of Sure Start on four and five-year-olds in respect of support when they reach primary school. That is why reading recovery is important.

Hackney reading recovery schemes are funded in a variety of ways in the borough: the neighbourhood renewal fund gives money to schemes in 10 schools; the Shoreditch trust is a new deal for communities partnership that funds six schools in the Shoreditch area; and “Every child a reader”, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North, referred is a partnership between the Department for Education and Skills, charitable trusts and the business sector, including, in particular, the KPMG Foundation, that funds five schools. That scheme is hosting an event in Parliament next week, and I hope that the Minister will be able to go along to hear more about this. Four schools are self-funding; the value of reading recovery is such that they found the resources to provide this invaluable service.

My hon. Friend went into great detail about the research in this area, so I shall not repeat all that. The cost of reading recovery is about £2,500 a child. That provides the one-to-one tuition that is needed for half an hour a day over three to four months. As he said, it is peanuts when we consider the consequences of not tackling the issue and the impact on society of children who leave school with lower than average levels of literacy.

The reading recovery programme is well established and is working well in Hackney, which was one of the first 11 areas in the country to use it. Currently, there are 43 trained reading recovery teachers, who work in 25 schools. Some 20 of those schools have one full-time reading recovery teacher per form entry.

In Hackney, reading recovery is an important part of the work to tackle poverty and improve the life chances of children. The children in that scheme are some of the most in need. Two out of three children on the programme in Hackney are entitled to free school meals, and 13 per cent. are either looked-after children
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or are from asylum-seeking and refugee families. As we know from other research, children from families where the main impediment to learning relates to English language quickly catch up and go on to contribute a great deal if they receive the right support at an early stage.

Many children in Hackney schools are learning English as a second language, and reading recovery has an important role in improving attainment; some65 per cent.—well over half—have English as an additional language, and 25 per cent are Turkish or Kurdish speaking. I have discussed some of the issues for Turkish and Kurdish speakers in my constituency with the DFES. A couple of weeks ago, I spoke to parents at Alevi, which is a large Turkish and Kurdish organisation, about the challenges that face their children. They are concerned that their children are slipping behind in schools. It is a question not of their intelligence but of the barriers that are created, partly through language. I also gave those parents a challenge. I said that their children will not do so well unless they speak English, or even Turkish, at home. Many Hackney schools provide Turkish literacy lessons for parents, so that they learn to improve their speaking with their children in their mother tongue. That provides an enormous benefit.

Recently, I spoke to another hon. Member who represents a London constituency, who told me that some early research is being done—so I shall not name the constituency at this point—that seems to indicate that children who attend additional Saturday school English and Turkish classes then do better at GCSE level. We are collating that research, and I flag this up to the Minister because there is a London-wide issue about how our Turkish and Kurdish children are achieving. I want the slower rate of progress to change so that their achievement is on a par with that of other ethnic groups that have English as a second language.

There have been major successes in the achievement of black boys. I give credit to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), who represents my neighbouring constituency and who pioneered the issue before it was flavour of the month. She put it on the educational map. We need to do similar things with the education of Turkish and Kurdish pupils, and she, and others in Hackney and across London, are trying to do that. I want to flag that up to the Minister because he will be hearing more about it from a number of us over the coming months.

I return to the issue of reading recovery. Reading recovery teachers train and support teaching assistants in the talking partners programme, which focuses on important oral language skills for children: developing the speaking and listening skills that underpin literacy. As other hon. Members have said, many children do not get that development at home.

It is important to ensure that investment is made in language development in schools. My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North referred to the perfect world that we may one day been in, where parents have all the parental support that some get through Hackney schools and hopefully others get through schools in his constituency. Parents do not all get that now, so we must ensure that we provide it in schools alongside the important parental learning.

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