Headlines: November 23rd, 2006



A local authority in a deprived area of Scotland is being hailed today for achieving a world first in adopting measures to eliminate reading failure among school pupils in its area. A report from the Centre for Policy Studies says the rate of children who cannot read adequately has already been reduced to six percent in West Dunbartonshire and by next year it is expected that no child will fail to reach the standard. The equivalent rate of reading failure in England is 21 per cent.

The report, “A world first for West Dunbartonshire: the elimination of reading failure” looks at how the authority is dealing with the problem through a local initiative using synthetic phonics. It also sets out the lessons it believes the Department for Education and Skills can learn from the scheme. The report’s author, Tom Burkard, who is director of the Promethean Trust, a charity for dyslexic children, says West Dunbartonshire is one of the most deprived areas of the UK but adds that its Literacy Initiative is not only successful but cheap. It costs only half of one per cent of the area’s education budget.

He points out that following the publication of the Rose report, the DfES has accepted that synthetic phonics are the most appropriate way of teaching children to read. While this is welcome, the report says, what is not welcome is that in encouraging greater use of the system the Department is dictating classroom procedure in detail.

West Dunbartonshire, the report goes on, has achieved its success through adopting a “bottom-up” initiative which contrasts starkly with the “top-down” approach adopted by the Department for Education. The West Dunbartonshire scheme has been instigated by one person – Dr Tommy MacKay – who has succeeded by the power of ideas and by showing that his approach works in practice with all children. This, the report continues, has broken the cycle of low expectations and reading failure. It estimates that the initiative has cost about 13 pounds and that achieving similar results for every primary school pupil in England would cost less than 54 million pounds.

In his conclusion, Tom Burkard claims the West Dunbartonshire example shows that rather than being the solution to educational difficulties more central control can in fact be the problem. The power of a successful example such as West Dunbartonshire, he says, can do more than well-intentioned but inevitably doomed top-down government edicts.