A few days ago, we began to look at the question of why local authorities chase home educating parents and seem so keen that all children should be at school. We agreed, I think, that there are many advantages to being literate and well educated and no discernible drawbacks. Now it is of course perfectly possible for a child to be educated adequately, other than at school. Never the less, school is the best and cheapest way of educating millions of children to a certain standard.
Before we explore the subject of local authorities wanting almost every child to attend school, I want to look at the one objection which is always raised by home educating parents whenever I touch upon this. Somebody is sure to say, 'Why don't the local authorities fix the school system, before they start worrying about home educated children? These schools are so dreadful that a fifth of the teenagers leaving school are illiterate! If over 20% of children can go through school for eleven years without learning to read and write, surely there is something wrong with the system of mass education?' This figure of one child in five being unable to read and write is of course quite absurd, but is widely believed by home educators. Let's look at the real situation.
I am currently working a dreadful primary school, where around half the children are entitled to free school dinners. It caters for a very deprived area and the children do not have, on the whole, stimulating homes where parents take an active interest in their education. Yet here's a very interesting thing. Every single child in Year 4 can read and write. I know this, because I have tested them myself; getting them to read from a newspaper, watching them write and so on. Remember, this is not some highly sought after school in a good district; quite the opposite. The current methods used to teach reading are astonishingly successful. By the use of synthetic phonics, practically any child can learn to read by the age of seven.
So far, so good. Every eight and nine year old can read and write, yet by the time that they leave school, will a fifth of them have lost these vital skills? Not at all; they will be far better at both reading and writing by the age of sixteen.
At this point, I sense that some readers are either scratching their heads in bewilderment or foaming at the mouth in fury; depending upon temperament. Hasn't government research confirmed this finding that rates of illiteracy are rising? Surely the schools can't be working very well? The explanation is very simple. The definition which I use for literacy is the one which was universal until a few years ago. Literacy was regarded as, 'the ability to read and write a simple note'. In other words, if you could write your friend a message, saying perhaps, 'See you at the pub tonight Jim, at nine' and he could read this; then you were both literate. This is probably the meaning of literacy which most of us still subscribe to. It means being able to read and write in this way. Using that definition, every school leaver in the United Kingdom, with one or two rare exceptions, is literate. The literacy rate in this country is effectively 100%. However, this is not the definition of literacy which is now in use. The new definition depends upon what we call 'document literacy'; which means the ability to decode and make sense of rather more complicated written material than a simple note. Reading a train timetable, for example, is one of the measures. Now I am pretty sure that I am not illiterate, but I certainly get in a muddle when looking at timetables of that sort and so do many people. Reading a map is another instance of 'document literacy'. Again, many well-read and literate people have trouble with map reading.
If I were to test Year 4 next week, by looking at their ability to read maps or fathom out train timetables, then the literacy rate would plummet from 100% to 0% over the course of the weekend!
Although I am not a fan of schools and the way that they do things, there is no doubt that they do what they set out to do very well. Every child receives an education, all are able to read, write and perform the four basic arithmetical operations by the time that they leave primary school. I might not like the methods, but they work. In other words, local authorities know that if a child is in school, then he or she is receiving an education. They do not know this about children who are not in school and this is where the problem begins. Next week, we shall look at some of their concerns and how these might be addressed.