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Dancing with the Danes

15/02/2010

Research by the Sutton Trust, published today, shows that 5 year old children from the poorest fifth of the population lag up to a year behind their peers in their language skills. This 20% deficit could be substantially reduced, the report’s authors claim, if parents ensure that 3-5 year olds have regular bedtimes, library visits and read together as a family, especially at bedtimes.

Sounds good and sensible? Well, of course it is. But, think again. If you have ever worked in a professional capacity with this multiply disadvantaged section of society, you will recognise that – especially among what used to be called ‘the poor white working class’ – things are not that simple.

The Sutton Trust report notes that just under half of this group of children were born to mothers under the age of 25 and just under two thirds did not live with at least one of their biological parents. Should we, from this, assume that they mean ‘teenage single mothers’? If so, they have a point which could be made about the reproduction and transmission of poverty. Parents from the poorest fifth of society are most likely to have failed in school and to be illiterate or in-numerate (or both) themselves.

Is it surprising that the figure of one-fifth is the same for illiteracy and innumeracy among adults? Official estimates of illiteracy are unclear and contradictory (Do we have 99% national literacy or 69.5% adult literacy?) and the reference standards or ‘Levels’ are confusing to the layman.

One way of demonstrating functional basic skills is to assess understanding of a simple notice – an ad for a concert (used in the Moser Report 2003) or a hotel fire safety warning or very basic bus timetable (used in an earlier University of Exeter study). More than one in five adults fail this test.

Whenever I make home visits, I am amazed by how much families rely on TV for their information and entertainment. It is often their sole cultural determinant and has replaced many aspects of family, religion and society for them. The TV dominates the living space available. Children in this space are also dominated by the screen and its all-powerful images.

I contrast that to the intimate and magical imagery of the story before bed that I had as a child and that my children, in their turn, experienced. My bedtime story diet was East European fairy stories, my children had more poetry: whether Robert Frost or Dylan Thomas. (We all loved Pippi Longstocking and the Moomin books!) But, whether enjoying  the rhythms of The Night Mail or the accents of The Lion and Albert, children get a feel for their language and the rules of the world it describes.

This is important, because reading stories with your children does many things. It comforts, it tunes the ear to language, it builds bonds and explores ideas.  In short, those shared moments of story-telling and sound games are cultural bearers, much as family readings of the Bible or Ramayana would have been in our parents’ generations.

Is it any wonder that parents who struggle to read don’t sit and read with their children? The consequences of this breakdown are serious. These are the same children who don’t settle well in primary school and who then fail to make the transition into secondary. They are also more likely to be in trouble with the law, become teenage parents, drop out of school and have poor health. Their life expectancy will be shorter than that of their more affluent peers and they do not share central experiences which might help make them much healthier and more settled in their school later on.

This reproduction of disadvantage is avoidable.  In other parts of Europe, the Nordic Countries seem to understand about the central importance of literacy. From this simple skill, so much else can flow – confidence, cognitive skills, creativity. All this and more comes from a familiarity with language re-enforced in the early years.

Of course, the country that tops those polls of world literacy levels is Cuba – followed by 11 other former communist countries. In another poll, out of 17 countries reporting higher literacy levels, the scandinavians (1st, 2nd & 3rd place) score 30.4% on average as opposed to the UK and US rating of 19.2% (8th & 9th place).

We have such a lot to learn about the transformative power of education. Maybe it is time we danced to a different tune. We really ought to learn from the Danes (or the Cubans). It’s time to give everyone  the best start in life…for all our sakes.

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