Being unable to read or write is a tremendous handicap. Not only does it diminish the self-confidence and quality of life of young people, it has a long-term effect on their ability to secure employment and on society in general. Fifteen years ago, nearly one-quarter of the population experienced serious literacy difficulties. More recently, one-third of children from disadvantaged areas left national school inadequately prepared for life. Since then, adult education programmes have helped. But underlying problems in primary schools have persisted.
Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn regards illiteracy as one of the major causes of inequality in our society and the programme for government contains a commitment that all children leaving national school by 2020 will be able to read and communicate in writing or through the digital media.
The aim of a national strategy, adopted last year, is to improve student literacy performance by 5 per cent. That is a worthy, if limited, objective. But progress has been painfully slow. Funding for teacher training and disadvantaged schools has fallen short of what is required and there appears to be a lack of coherence in official policy. On the positive side, the time devoted to literacy within national schools has increased from 50 to 90 minutes a day and teaching methods are being standardised and improved.
A series of articles in this newspaper, advising parents on how their children can be assisted and encouraged in reading, comprehension and spelling, provides an insight into the necessity for adult motivation, encouragement and persistence. Bedtime reading with children, leading to comprehension and spelling ability, can be deeply satisfying. But many disadvantaged children do not receive home help because their parents may also be illiterate or because of cultural and economic factors. It makes the role of the primary school more acute and the requirement for special funding and improved teaching methods indisputable.