13 Jun 2010

Speech on the Literacy Commission 14th. January 2010

Like others, I welcome the commission's work and its valuable contribution to the development and enhancement of literacy in Scotland and pay tribute to my Labour Party colleagues who commissioned the report.

I know that everyone in the chamber appreciates the significance of literacy—or, perhaps more accurately, the significance of illiteracy. A National Literacy Trust paper by George Dugdale and Christina Clark that eloquently sets out some of the issues refers to a 2002 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which indicated that

"Reading for pleasure has been revealed as the most important indicator of the future success of a child ... and improvements in literacy, at any point in life, can have a profound effect on an individual."

I am sure that we all agree with that analysis.

In their report, George Dugdale and Christina Clark outline the profile of a literate community. In such a community, individuals are far more likely to participate in its work, are more likely to trust its people and are more likely to perceive it to be safer. Such positive aspects can serve only to enhance the quality of life in any community.

The report also sets out the profile of a literate nation. Such a nation is more likely to vote, the significance of which cannot be overstated; is less likely to smoke and drink—and we are aware of the profound significance of such factors; has better mental health; and has a better skilled and more flexible workforce. Some of those issues highlight why tackling the problem of illiteracy should be the number 1 educational priority of this and indeed any Administration. The fact is that every child who leaves primary school should be able to read, write and count.

However, any literacy policy needs to address three key factors: gender; parental input, which Karen Whitefield mentioned and to which I will return; and socioeconomic factors. On gender, we should not dismiss lightly the differences between boys and girls as far as literacy is concerned. We know that boys at any age are less likely to read.

However, although we need to find ways of engaging them more, we should also recognise that boys' books are pitched at a lower level than are books for girls of the same age. With that in mind, I encourage the cabinet secretary to engage with Learning and Teaching Scotland to review the advice that is given on practice so that it reflects available expert opinion.

There is another issue around literacy that we need to encourage, and on which I hope that the Government will also engage with Learning and Teaching Scotland. We need to encourage better and more significant links with the United Kingdom and the rest of the world, so that we articulate our success with some of the initiatives that have been outlined this morning, and so that we learn from best practice elsewhere in the world. We could do some more work on that.

Karen Whitefield mentioned some of the parental input initiatives. Over the years, the contribution made by some of the good sure start projects—I am not saying that every sure start project has been a success—has clearly shown the benefits of more parents getting involved with children at a young age. That has a lasting impact on the child, and indeed continues when that child becomes a parent. As a teacher working in a deprived area, over the years I saw generations of families that were failing because the parents were unable to articulate to their children, and when those children became parents they were unable to help their own children to develop. We were cementing in disadvantage in certain parts of the country, which was tragic for those families, the community and the country.

We need to consider socioeconomic issues. The Dugdale and Clark research looks specifically at impacts on the individual. The profile of a person with poor literacy shows that they are more likely to live in a non-working household; they are less likely to have children, and if they do their children are less likely to be successful; they are more likely to live in overcrowded housing; and they are less likely to vote. If we tackle the problem of illiteracy, such families and individuals are less likely to rely on state benefits and more likely to become home owners. They are more likely to be able to engage productively in the workforce and to be able to use the new technology that is increasingly available in every workplace. We know about the negative results of socioeconomic disadvantage and the positive ways in which literacy can address them. We ignore that at our peril.

Socioeconomic issues demand different types of teaching in different areas. Language development will be different in different communities. We cannot take a one-size-fits-all approach to the problem. Teaching children who traditionally have a small vocabulary needs teacher-intensive phonics and vocabulary building, whereas children who come from more affluent households can go with more child-directed work and develop as a result. I say to the cabinet secretary that we should encourage and allow local authorities to allow individual schools to take the approach that is best suited to the children they teach. We can all sign up to that crusade.

I understand Christina McKelvie's point that we should not be negative about what has been allowed to develop in this country, but the truth is that, despite the best efforts of this and previous Administrations, there is clearly a deep-rooted problem in Scotland. If we do not tackle that problem and double, redouble, and quadruple our efforts, in 20, 30 and 40 years we will be having the same debate and failing the same families from the same areas.