The Standard newspaper is running yet another one of its huge and, apparently, hugely successful campaigns, this time to get London reading. Yes, indeed, this is the outcome of that report (mentioned here) that told us about one third of London's children leaving primary schools without being literate (or numerate). They cannot read, write or count.
The campaign appears to be highly popular (though, of course, one cannot trust newspapers) which has made me realize that there is nothing people in this country love more than a campaign. The outcome is of lesser import and that is, undoubtedly, what the various charities, NGOs and the whole aid industry rely on. As, indeed, do those two campaigns for an In/Out referendum.
Over the last few days we have been told that the campaign is backed by the Duchess of Cornwall, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, assorted writers and journalists and the usual job lot of celebrities, including someone who is a judge on the X-factor (no, not her). People are giving money and volunteering to be hear children in primary schools read. Google has given money. Hizonner the Mayor has gone one better and has started a fund for literacy and numeracy.
My immediate question was "what about those infamous CRB checks that prevent people from volunteering to work with children and disabled people?" but that was not mentioned till today in a letter. Well, what about them? Will the urgency of the crisis make HMG decide that not everyone who wants to work with children is a paedophile or will all these volunteers be turned away?
The last time the Standard ran a campaign it was to help the "dispossessed" of London. They collected something like £1 and a half million, had Prince William for a Patron, lined up lots of celebs and politicians and produced a number of poorly explained hard-luck stories. Since then they periodically mention some success stories of people who have been helped by the big fund and are now sorting their lives out. Obviously, one is glad about that but I would like to know what happened to the bulk of the money and how many people who were helped did, in fact, sort their lives out.
Now we are back with stories of children who are poor, have English as a second language, have no books (though lots of electronic gadgets) in their homes, and so on. We are all at fault, it is a problem for all of us, we must all help.
What all these lengthy articles, calls for help, satisfied comments about the wonderful generosity of Londoners (which is true) try not to deal with is that little problem called primary schools and an even bigger problem called primary school teachers.
In the first article two schools in West London were compared: they had not dissimilar social and linguistic complement of pupils, yet one had children reading novels and poetry by the age of 10, the other turned out a very large number of complete illiterates. The difference: the first school used traditional methods and allowed no excuses, while the second one relied on endless electronic gadgets, iPods to take home and spent a good deal of time whining. Are we to draw any conclusions? Goodness me, no. Hastily, everybody agreed that what works for one school may not work for another.
Since then only the Bishop of London, while re-enforcing the view that we should all get together to beat this scourge, also firmly added that church schools had a very high level of literacy. Yet, church schools take pupils with all social and linguistic levels.
I am all in favour of people not thinking that the state will solve all problems and trying to solve some themselves either through volunteering or giving charitable donations. But we cannot get round the fact that we do have a highly expensive national education system. Many millions of pounds are spent every year on our primary sector. (Just how many millions is very hard to find out without a great many questions, which I might persuade a member of the House of Lords to put down.) Yet, we seem to accept that only children who have books at home and whose parents read to them can learn to do so themselves. What enables them to learn to count is even less clear. Dare one ask what the point of all those primary schools and their teachers is?
So here is a deal: not only I but a number of my friends and allies (though not in those referendum campaigns) will volunteer to read in primary schools but on the following conditions: that clear budgets are published for the primary sector, that those budgets are cut back according to the amount of core work that is outsourced to volunteers and that teachers whose pupils consistently fail to learn the three 'R's get fired with immediate effect. Deal? Oh yes, and get rid of those stupid CRB checks.