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It is important that the programme is not just one in Hackney or Nottingham: it must be nationwide. In Hackney and in London generally, there is a high turnover in population. Children often do not stay in the same school. It is important that such children do not lose out just because they have changed school, particularly where their parents do not understand or value what the reading recovery programme gives them. It is unjust that a child on such a scheme can lose the support overnight by moving school; it does not travel with them and it is not universal. Some 6 to 7 per cent. of children, rising to 10 per cent. among boys, leave primary schools without the most basic reading and writing skills. That represents about 40,000 children a year in England. I am sure that the Minister takes this seriously.

The reading recovery scheme is one of the programmes that provides excellent results. Some83 per cent. of children in Hackney who take part in it catch up completely with their classmates, and often overtake them, after only 12 to 20 weeks of daily teaching. The £2,500 is a small price to pay for that rapid, tangible progress. I know that the Government like to see tangible progress and like to point out how their investment is getting results. On that basis, I hope that the Minister was listening closely to those figures. Throughout the country and in Hackney, it is helping to give the best chance to the children who mostneed it.

Numeracy recovery is also starting in some schools in Hackney and I shall be interested to see how that programme develops for slow learners in maths. Other issues are involved in how that is programmed in and it is not just a one-off hit, so a different approach may be needed, but it is an exciting project.

We do not want children to fall behind at that crucial early stage in their lives and to be labelled a substandard reader, because that will impact on them for the rest of their lives. My hon. Friend referred to some of the figures on people in prison and youth custody who cannot read well. Of those in youth custody, 25 per cent. had a reading age of below seven. That is disgusting in our modern world and we must tackle the problem. It will take years to get the solution through the system, but if we deal with reading recovery now we will get there.

My direct plea to the Minister is that we need continuity of funding, not one-off schemes. We need a national programme and to follow Hackney’s example of the excellent parent and learning family support that is provided through our schools. In short, we need Sure Start not just for under-fives, but at five and for parents who did not have that start in life.

11.51 am

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on securing this debate and the ecumenical way in which he spoke—the seating arrangements this morning are also ecumenical. He mentioned deprivation and the effect that low literacy and numeracy standards can have on trapping people in the deprived circumstances they may have had since birth.
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He also mentioned the low literacy and numeracy standards of people in prison, as did the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) when she spoke about young offenders. There is a large prison in my constituency and we know about the measurable levels of literacy and numeracy, but when one talks to prisoners their low articulation skills are striking and follow from low education skills. That partly explains why they find themselves in those dreadful circumstances.

We know from the Government’s research and the Department’s report in 2005 that the gap in educational attainment between key stage 2 for children aged 11 who have free school meals and those in families that are not eligible for that support can be up to 2.9 terms—in anyone else’s language that means a year’s loss of teaching support. That feeds through into a wider gap at GCSE level. In higher education—I usually speak on that for my party—the participation rate for those from working class families is around15 per cent., whereas for those from professional families and whose parents have been to university it is 80 per cent. There is a yawning gap in participation rates in higher education. That gap grows wider from the age of seven and that is probably the age at which the gap at 18 is determined.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, North mentioned the number of words that children from different families might hear at a young age. I think he said—he will correct me if I am wrong—that children from a professional family background might hear 50 million words, but those from a working class background might hear 12 million. Early intervention will pay a great dividend.

Mr. Allen: I said that children in a family on benefits might hear 12 million words. The middle range for children in working class families is 30 million. Interaction and articulation in families on benefits is far less.

Stephen Williams: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. We both illustrated that there is a big gap in articulation levels and that is probably set very early by what children hear from their parents.

I am reminded of my A-level history lessons on the counter-reformation and Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, who said, “If you give me a child until the age of seven he will have my standards for life thereafter.” That applies in so many ways.

We are debating the reading recovery programme—in some parts of the country it is called “Every child a reader”. We know from the figures quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) that the levels of support that the programme can achieve are impressive. At key stage 1, two thirds of children who took part in the programme achieved the expected level and, even without further support, half achieved the expected level by the time they got to key stage 2. Going back to what my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke)—she has now left the Chamber—said during an intervention, if that support were maintained throughout education, those percentages and fractions would, I am sure, be much higher.

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Literacy is about not only reading skills, but language and communication. In a modern economy we need to turn out people who can go into the workplace at 16 or 18 to sell, to persuade, to negotiate and to achieve what is best for them and their employers. Alarming trends are set early in life for whether they are likely to leave school with those educational skills.

The 2004-05 annual report of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority on English says that

I am a member of the Select Committee on Education and Skills and the hon. Member for Nottingham, North quoted from its report during the previous Parliament: “Teaching Children to Read”. Another extract says that

Partly for those reasons and partly because of evidence that we picked up elsewhere—this is the one party point I shall make—the Liberal Democrats have set up the 4Rs commission to examine not only reading, writing and arithmetic, but the skill of articulation. We have tried to take politics out of that commission by ensuring that it is headed by a respected educationist, Bethan Marshall, and consists of primary school teachers and people who work with children in other fields, including children’s entertainment and TV.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion mentioned the role of other parts of government, such as local government and libraries. As a child, I discovered the joy of reading partly from going to my local library back in south Wales. I was lucky to have home support. I read Enid Blyton books and remember “The Magic Faraway Tree” and the “The Enchanted Wood”, as, I am sure, do many of us.

One sector that has not been spoken about is the voluntary sector and its role. In my constituency recently, I met a group called Volunteer Reading Help, a charity that has existed in Bristol since the 1970s. It now provides support in more than 1,000 schools throughout the country. It goes into schools and works, typically, with groups of four children twice a week for 30 minutes to give them the reading support that they need. The emphasis in that support is not on achieving any key stage or curriculum requirements; it is all about the fun of reading. It teaches reading by encouraging children to read books that they enjoy and to take part in games. Its results have been impressive.

There is also a role for possessions. I am not a father, but I am a godfather and I know that my godchildren love being given books. The bag of books that my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion mentioned is obviously playing a role, but there are many other ways open to the Government and voluntary sector. I was given an annual book at Sunday school and I still have them all at home. Just giving a child a book that belongs to them and they can hold on to will encourage them to take up the joy of reading. There is a role for
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the Government, a role for the profession, a role for parents and a role for volunteers to start children on the voyage of discovery that the joy of reading can lead them to.

11.59 am

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): I am pleased to speak under your chairmanship, Mr. Bayley, during the closing part of this discussion. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on securing this debate. We have heard in some powerful contributions, showing that we feel strongly about this issue on both sides of the House, and I applaud his consensual approach to the debate, which is important, because as the hon. Gentleman said, the point at which we learn to read can determine so much of the rest of our lives. A child’s vocabulary at five years old, and reading age at 10 years old, are pivotal. They are even more important than parental contribution, although the two go hand in hand. That is unsurprising, because if reading is not sound, accessing the remainder of the curriculum is a fundamental problem, and no one wants to see a waste of potential. That is why we are rightly concerned about literacy problems, and why I am concerned that one in five 11-year-olds does not achieve his or her expected reading age.

The hon. Gentleman said that difficulty with reading varies. However, we should be concerned about all underachievement, because being unable to read properly early in life severely undermines our children’s chances of a secure future. That is important, given the correlation between low literacy and children living in poverty.

The concept of reading recovery was introduced to the UK in 1992 under a previous Government, but it enjoyed cross-party support. Many other schemes have drawn on the expertise of the reading recovery approach, but the original approach is intensive. There are daily half-hour sessions in which highly trained teachers support six-year-olds who are usually in the bottom 20 per cent. of their class for reading.

As with any reading scheme, reading recovery has its critics. Some question the cost, but research indicates that the scheme has a positive impact when used effectively in schools. The Institute of Education and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority have assessed its impact and they feel that it helps the weakest readers—those to whom the hon. Gentleman referred. The published results are compelling. Seventy per cent. of those who were in the bottom20 per cent. of their class at six years old and received reading recovery support had moved up to the average band four years later. That is testament to the scheme’s success.

Few people doubt that reading recovery can help in the most difficult cases, but reading recovery is aimed at just that—recovering pupils who start to fail in the education system. The QCA believes that the main focus should be on catching children before they fail. I am interested in that view, because it has great merit.

The hon. Gentleman discussed the city of Nottingham, where I attended school for a brief period and which I know quite well. All hon. Members owe it to the children in their constituencies to get right first time the teaching of reading. We must root out the
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underlying problems that create the need for reading recovery. The hon. Gentleman rightly said that the earlier we invest, the more we get it right. We should aim for prevention.

That is why I shall concentrate on three areas on which I should welcome the Minister’s response. They are Sure Start, nurseries and synthetic phonics. An important element of the original Sure Start idea was to work with the most disadvantaged families to break the cycle of poverty that exists in all constituencies. In my constituency, there are two small areas of extreme deprivation. Unfortunately, because of their geography, they do not receive the support of a Sure Start programme; however, they receive lots of support from other organisations.

We must consider how we can break the cycle of poverty in which people are trapped. Education is an important element, and staff at the successful Sure Start programmes that I have visited in different parts of the country think that literacy is pivotal. The Sure Start programme in Reading, which I visited recently, has developed a home reading support scheme for the youngest children. It includes rhyming tapes to help mothers who may not know the nursery rhymes that we knew as children. Rhymes can be an important first step in gaining the communication skills that lead to reading skills. The Reading programme has also developed a book library, so that children who may not have access to books in their home have the opportunity from the very earliest years to see how books can add to their lives. [Interruption.]

Mr. Allen: Mr. Bayley, I am only three yards away from the hon. Lady, who is making a compelling case. However, I am finding it difficult to concentrate because of the hammering and burrowing on the outer wall. Might something be done about it, at least for future debates? I should like to hear her argument.

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): I have just discussed the matter with the Clerk, and I understand that the attendant has gone to see whether the noise can be reduced. The problem is that the work must be completed by the state opening of Parliament. I hope that the attendant is able to help us.

Mrs. Miller: Thank you, Mr. Bayley. I just thought that even more people were trying to get in to listen to our debate.

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): You were doing extremely well.

Mrs. Miller: Thank you, Mr. Bayley.

Sure Start can make a valuable contribution to the improvement of literacy skills. There is a local example in Westminster. The Westminster Children’s Society Sure Start programme involves the local library in its work to improve literacy skills from a very early age. The society runs story times at the library with the aim of introducing books to the very young—the pre-pre-school children. Importantly, it tries to identify where help is needed with parental literacy. I was most impressed with the range of books in the library that I
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visited in Westminster, which included works in more than 20 different languages. It showed how much work has been done to support the diverse community only a stone’s throw from our place of work.

As the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) said, Sure Start tries to develop a culture of learning very early on, and as other Members have said, it should reach out to an even broader community. After only a few short years, however, the fundamental changes to Sure Start funding and to the introduction of children’s centres has called into question the future of such projects. Owing to the nature of children’s centres, future funding per child will be cut from £1,300 to £250. How realistic is it to think that that important work will continue? I should welcome the Minister’s thoughts, because established and highly motivated professionals who work in those organisations are worried by the changes.

Hon. Members have this morning highlighted the important way in which nurseries and pre-school groups ensure readiness for school. The UK Effective Provision of Pre-school Education project, EPPE, found compelling evidence that those who attended nursery had significantly improved cognitive and social development skills, making them much better placed to start learning to read when they went to full-time school. Again, however, there is concern about the future funding of nurseries and, in particular, the funding of nursery places for three and four-year-olds. The change in funding will mean a bleak future for many nurseries throughout the country.

The voluntary sector runs many of those organisations. Given their importance in providing a bedrock for reading tuition, will the Minister confirm his commitment to ensure that the funding exists to deliver the Government’s promise of free nursery places? Many nurseries find it hard to fulfil that concept, given the money that they receive from the Government.

Too many of our children still fail to grasp reading the first time round. The evidence has been clear for some time that the best way to teach a child to read is by synthetic phonics. The Government’s own Rose review reinforced the conclusions of a great deal of work that has been done here in the UK and elsewhere by stating that high-quality synthetic phonics should be used as a teaching tool by the age of five. I was glad to hear earlier this year that the Government now fully endorse that view. I will be interested to hear from the Minister what they are doing to embed the approach both in our schools and in the training of teachers. That is vital if this important method is to be used effectively.

All the factors that I have mentioned affect our children’s ability to read. As the hon. Member for Nottingham, North said, reading recovery is an important tool. I was interested to hear the contribution made by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), who made a compelling argument for the use of reading recovery, particularly among children who have English as a second language and those who move schools more regularly than the average. The system clearly has an important role in those cases. However, that is one element of a much broader mix. Early years support, nursery schools and synthetic phonics are also vital
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ingredients. What are the Government doing to remove the question mark over some of the activities that are so successfully being undertaken in Sure Start, and what is the Minister doing to remove the sword of Damocles that is hanging over the heads of so many nurseries?

Some £500 million is used to fund literacy in England, but is it being used in the most effective way possible? The hon. Member for Nottingham, North clearly feels that it is not, and he has taken the opportunity afforded by this debate to articulate his views. The matters that I have raised on Sure Start and the future of our nurseries show that the Government have no room for complacency. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Reading recovery can help some of the children whom the system has failed, but it is most important that every child has the right to learn to read and get the right start to their school life.

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