Literacy and disadvantage: my speech to the launch event of the BradfordLiterature Festival, 26 Sept 2014

I start with the words of Somerset Maugham: “To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life.”
And, more positively, the remarkable Native American writer, Sherman Alexie, from his personal experience of surviving his childhood ailments: “If one reads enough books one has a fighting chance. Or better, one’s chances of survival increase with each book one reads.”
I am delighted that one of five aims of the Bradford Literature Festival is: “To raise aspirations and literacy attainment levels in a sustainable and measurable manner.” This will be my focus this evening.
You are aiming for (I quote): “a stimulating pageant of words, debates and ideas” and “an enriching literary and cultural experience.”
Indeed, no less than the cultural and economic regeneration of Bradford is your dream.
The Festival will be a dialogue between different parts of the Bradford community, seeing its diversity – rightly, in my view – as a strength.
With these aims for the community, and improving aspirations and literacy in particular, this means reaching out to all, especially the disadvantaged.
In my role as National Pupil Premium Champion, I work with school leaders and teachers on the most effective ways of using pupil premium funding to raise the attainment of disadvantaged children.
Bradford statistics for the achievement of disadvantaged pupils are right on the national average. This is slightly better than Leeds, but well behind London, Manchester, Birmingham, Oldham, Rochdale and nearly all places with a diverse community.
Statistics show that the achievement gap is smallest in ethnically diverse communities of all sorts, and largest among the white British community. So Bradford should be doing better. Being average nationally is actually being below average for a community like this.
Improving literacy, especially among younger children, is the key to improving their future life chances and it’s great that this Festival aims to do this. The task is closing the gap and raising achievement: helping everyone up the hill of learning, but helping those lower down the hill through no fault of their own to climb the hill that bit faster.
In the words of Andreas Schleicher of the OECD: “Our data shows it doesn’t matter if you go to a school in Britain, Finland or Japan, students from a privileged background tend to do well everywhere. What really distinguishes education systems is their capacity to deploy resources where they can make the most difference. [The] effect [of] a teacher anywhere in the world is a lot bigger for a student who doesn’t have a privileged background than for a student who has lots of educational resources [at home].”
Interestingly, children on free school meals (FSM), on average, do best in schools where there are very few of them or in schools where there are lots of them.
In these successful schools, there is clear recognition of
– the benefits of early intervention;
– the need to improve literacy and maths, so children can fully engage with all subjects;
– the benefits of improving the engagement of parents in their children’s education;
– the importance of raising aspirations and, just as importantly, expectations, among children and their parents;
– and, above all, having an excellent quality of teaching, which evidence shows is disproportionately beneficial to disadvantaged children – who are hit particularly badly by poor teaching, with no private tutors to compensate for a school’s shortcomings.
Like most headteachers, I am an optimist and, in my National Pupil Premium Champion role, I encourage heads to raise their ambition for their schools to be one of the 17 per cent of schools where the children on FSM do better than the average of all children across the country – so it is possible to close the gap;
Schools have complete autonomy to decide what to spend the money on and what will have the greatest impact in their context. This provides great opportunities for arts organisations.
As well as raising attainment and narrowing the gap, they might decide that their school needs to spend money on improving the attendance of children on FSM; or improving engagement with families; or developing these young people’s skills; or broadening their experiences; or ensuring that they do not leave school and join the NEETs (not in education, employment or training).
I encourage them to “stop looking up and start looking out”: to move away from the 25 years that the teaching profession has spent waiting for the next government announcement of what, or, heaven help us, how to teach.
Look out to the excellent practice in other schools, including the schools that have won pupil premium awards.
And become curriculum planners again, as my generation of teachers and school leaders used to be.
My definition of the school curriculum is everything that happens to a child in school – not just in lessons. And that creates huge opportunities for schools to think not only about what knowledge they want their pupils to acquire, but also what skills and personal qualities they want their young people to develop and what additional experiences they want their pupils to have.
I have the privilege of being chair of a wonderful organisation called Whole Education, which believes that every child has a right to a fully-rounded education, way beyond the narrow confines of test and examination syllabuses.
And a planned curriculum can do just that; not teaching knowledge and skills separately, but as warp and weft of the same learning process.
In the words of Andreas Schleicher again, on the basis of what he has seen happening in schools in the tiger economies of the Far East:
“Today schooling needs to be much more about ways of thinking, involving creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making.” Not just a limited range of knowledge, but wider knowledge, the arts and these broader attributes too.
Singapore has cut its national curriculum by 30 per cent to make way for such things.
As Professor Guy Claxton has said: Too often, the pressures of accountability on schools mean that “children are prepared for a life of tests, but not for the tests of life.”
This is made worse by the inspection model to which schools are subjected, which encourages tactical game-playing.
I love the story of the inspector who was on his way to a school and his car broke down. Two children nearby, both very knowledgeable about cars, offered to help. The inspector was most grateful, but asked them why they weren’t in school. “We’re the slow ones,” they said, “the head told us that an inspector was coming today and that we had to stay off school.” These children had knowledge and they had skills, but not in conventional ways that are judged by our narrow inspection criteria.
A whole education is not either knowledge or skills; it is a both/and education that educates the whole child in the examination curriculum and the arts and broader ways.
And its basis is the need for a high degree of literacy, from which all else flows – which is why I am so glad that schools are working with, and spending their pupil premium funding on, the many literacy charities that exist, nationally and locally across the UK.
– The National Literacy Trust (I have to mention this first – one of my former pupils, Abigail Moss, is the NLT’s deputy director) with its “reading with parents” scheme, the vitally important Read On Get On campaign, and is launching the Bradford Literacy Campaign next week.
– Reading Matters, a Yorkshire-based network of 100 volunteer reading mentors, also training older pupils as reading leaders.
– The Tutor Trust, which operates in Manchester, but will spread elsewhere, I hope, under which university students are trained and paid to provide extra tuition to children whose parents cannot afford it.
– Beanstalk, which recruits volunteers to read with children in school.
– The Book Trust, encouraging people of all ages to enjoy books.
All these organisations, and more, help children to develop the skill of reading and, of equal importance, the love of reading and of books.
Or Kindles, of course.
In my house Kindles are a marmite issue. One of us loves his Kindle; the other is a great books person.
As Stephen Fry has said: “Books are no more threatened by Kindles, than are stairs by elevators.”
I like my Kindle, but I like the feel of a good book in my hands too.
At a time when one in 3 children live in households that do not own a book, we have to use every tool we can to get people reading, to nourish their imaginations and build their self-confidence and self-esteem, as reading does.
That is why it is so important to work with parents and families in disadvantaged communities, where most of these bookless families are.
And with children whose daily experience of family life is that shopping is more important than learning.
Reflecting on more serious cases, Roy Blatchford of the National Education Trust asked the question: “Have you ever met a mugger who’s read Middlemarch?”
As the National Literacy Trust has reported, the UK has a big challenge to face, with the youngest generation having literacy scores no better than the eldest generation. And NLT reminds us that poor literacy is positively correlated with lower earnings, poverty, poorer health and crime, with 48 per cent of offenders in custody having a reading age below the expected level of an 11 year old.
We all know about the importance of mothers in developing children’s literacy and learning. A recent study has found the education of fathers is the most important factor in a child’s success at school.
Studies show that reading a variety of literature independently by the age of 15 is the single biggest indicator of future success, outweighing negative factors such as socio-economic background or family situation.
Indeed an Oxford University study of 17,000 people born in 1970 found that teenagers who read books are significantly more likely to end up in a professional job than those who don’t.
With its community focus, reaching out across the diversity of Bradford, this Festival will have much to contribute to the lives of these children and their families. As you start on your journey, what better place to begin than literacy, the foundation stone of learning?
Literacy changes lives and we need to move away from the arid debate about phonics or real books, with government ministers pronouncing in favour of phonics, when it is well known that the best way into literacy is through both phonics and real books.
Not just in school, but in the home and in the community too.
National education politics can be so frustrating, as so many teachers will tell you. All Westminster politicians had an education, so that makes them experts and they think that allows them to make pronouncements on education in ways that health ministers wouldn’t dream of doing. And so the winds of change in education policy blow hither and thither, and the policy pendulum swings back and forth, obeying Randolph Churchill’s famous recipe for political action – “If at first you don’t succeed, shuffle the cards and try again.”
Or, as a taxi driver said to me once, “The government ought to find answers to these solutions.”
I have long noted that the relationship between government and teachers has been based on trust and understanding. We don’t trust them and they don’t understand us!
Education is too important to be constantly interfered with by secretaries of state whose average length of office since 1944 is 2.2 years. That is why it is so good to see such a broad range of organisations supporting the Festival and determining to move it forward in a non-political way.
In the words of your website: “The Festival will take literacy out of the classroom and embed it in everyday living by inspiring parents and children.”
As a relatively recent convert to the joys of the Hay Festival, with its big programme for children (always the first events to be fully booked), I have seen how parents and children can develop a shared love of reading at events such as these. Where Hay has grown over its 25-year history, I am sure that the Bradford Festival will grow too, with your support.
The cultural life of the whole community can, and must, be nourished by your efforts in ways that would have made that chronicler of northern culture, Richard Hoggart, proud.
It is 57 years since the publication of The Uses of Literacy, in which Hoggart wrote: “We are moving towards the creation of a mass culture; that the remnants of what was at least in part an urban culture ‘of the people’ are being destroyed; and that the new mass culture is in some important respects less healthy than the often crude culture it is replacing.”
Hoggart would surely have been even more concerned about the culture of our country today than he was then.
I am delighted that an important part of the Festival’s work will be in schools and with children. As the more recent Yorkshire author, Gervase Phinn, whom I have come to know well over many years, has said: “Schools should be for the disadvantaged what the home is for the advantaged.”
To take just one example, I heard Derek Jacobi speak several years ago. He told us that he wouldn’t have been a professional actor if it hadn’t been for the drama at his school in the East End of London. “Inspirational teachers took us”, he said, “on endless trips to London theatres.” Or, in the sporting field, think of the influence that a PE teacher had on the life of Mo Farah. Or the influence that a teacher had on the lives of each of us here this evening.
I have always believed that the experience that children have of the arts in school stays with them all their lives, much more than what they learn in technology, for example.
That is why, as a headteacher, I started a termly artist-in-residence scheme in my school, bringing painters, sculptors, potters, poets, authors, playwrights, drama producers, composers, musical performers, and more, from the wider region into school.
I knew it would have a profound impact on the young people with whom they worked. What I didn’t realise when I started the scheme was the impact that it would have on the teachers too, broadening and deepening their expertise, and thus passing on the benefits to future generations of pupils.
As I heard the late, great Professor Ted Wragg say, and as I have often heard Sir Ken Robinson say: all children are born with their ‘learning switch’ set to ON. Some regrettably have it switched to OFF during their school years, saying things like “I’m no good at maths” or “I don’t like reading books.” The teacher’s job is to keep all those learning switches in the ON position and you, the Festival and community leaders here in Bradford, can hugely help teachers to do that in this great city.
So reflecting on the importance of literature in the lives of young people, let me end with Professor Brian Cox, not the famous young physicist but the former professor of English at Manchester, and his poem about his English teacher:
English Teacher

Petite, white-haired Miss Cartwright
Knew Shakespeare off by heart,
Or so we pupils thought.
Once in the stalls at the Old Vic
She prompted Lear when he forgot his part.
Ignorant of Scrutiny and Leavis,
She taught Romantic poetry,
Dreamt of gossip with dead poets.
To an amazed sixth form once said:
‘How good to spend a night with Shelley.’
In long war years she fed us plays,
Sophocles to Shaw’s St Joan.
Her reading nights we named our Courting Club,
Yet always through the blacked-out streets
One boy left the girls and saw her home.
When she closed her eyes and chanted
‘Ode to a Nightingale’
We laughed yet honoured her devotion.
We knew the man she should have married
Was killed at Passchendaele.

If the Bradford Literature Festival can make that kind of impression on the minds and lives of your young people, it will have achieved much.
I pay tribute to the way in which the Festival organisers, Syima and Irna, have turned their dream into the wonderful diverse programme of the Festival.
I pay tribute to all those of you who have helped them to realise that dream.
I wish you luck in your exciting and important adventure.