THE UK’S literacy standards are dropping, but at least one man in South Yorkshire’s fighting the battle.
Star reporter Rachael Clegg talks to author and former teacher Neil Whyke about dragons, magic and re-engaging our children with literature
WHEN Neil Whyke’s grandson showed no interest in reading, his grandfather didn’t sit down with him and read the paper, he didn’t even read him a story book.
Instead, as a solution to his grandchild’s literacy issues, he created another universe - he wrote the six year-old his own story. It’s a story about a rock and roll-loving dragon, kindness, compassion, a Sheffield schoolboy and - of course - magic.
“My daughter called me and said she was really concerned because my grandson wasn’t interested in reading. He was six years old and just wasn’t at all bothered about it so I thought I’d write him his own story as a way of getting him hooked.”
The story is based on the antics of a schoolboy who nurtures a dragon with magical powers. But while impressive, the dragon’s powers are pursued by an mean and nasty sorcerer.
The book, Bring It On, is fantastical and realistic at the same time, set in modern-day Sheffield but with mythical creatures and other-worldly powers.
“Trouble is,” says Neil. “My daughter phones me and said ‘it’s alright, he’s started taking an interest now in reading and he’s got his nose in everything.”
But Neil was already too deep in his narrative and finished not just the book, but ended up writing a trilogy.
“I had to carry on,” he says. “And then, after that book, people were stopping me and saying ‘but what happens now?’ so I had to do another.”
Neil, who worked as a primary school teacher for 40 years, believes that imagination is key to engaging children with literacy.
But the former teacher believes that the National Curriculum’s compartmentalisation of the education system is making it difficult for children to enjoy reading.
“Now they have an allocated slot for reading and then history and so the kids’ brains start to compartmentalise things and don’t make connections. We read some fascinating history books when I was a teacher and the children loved the historical stories. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t specifically an English lesson because the kids loved it and wanted to read,”
Neil’s observations are interesting in light of recent findings about the state of the UK’s literacy levels.
According to the chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, England is being overtaken by other nations because our reading standards have stalled.
Standards among schoolchildren haven’t improved since 2005, with 20 per cent of eleven-year-olds not making the grade - level four.
Wilshaw said that comparisons with countries such as the Netherlands and Norway presented a ‘worrying picture’.
In the last Programme for International Student Assessment Survey, Britain was 23rd in the world for literacy.
But the problem can be fixed if more emphasis is put on literacy at an early age.
In a BBC interview Wilshaw said: “Our main concern is that too many pupils fall behind in their literacy early on. In most cases, if they can’t read securely at seven they struggle to catch up as they progress through their school career. Without reading and writing skills they find it difficult to access the curriculum and achieve well in their examinations.”
Such is the extent of the problem that last year the independent panel investigating last year’s youth riots - the Communities and Victims’ Panel - concluded that poor literacy is implicated in anti-social behaviour and heavily criticised schools for poor literacy.
For Neil, this is worrying. “Reading and writing are probably the most important skills a child can develop. Everything involves reading - if you drive a car you have to read signs and even if you did nothing but watch TV all day you would have to be able to read the messages, especially with these fancy new televisions that flash up messages all the time.”
Neil believes that part of the problem lies in the current educational culture of over-planning and compartmentalisation of lessons. “Before the curriculum I used to do week-long projects with children and the concentration they had when they were interested in something was unbelievable - with the curriculum teachers can’t do that anymore.”
“When I started teaching 40 years ago the bottom end children were the same standard as today’s bottom end and the top end were very much the same as today’s top end but it’s the middle that’s changed. Overall, the middle group has dropped in standards. There used to be a lot more children going into top sets from this group but these days they have fallen behind.”
But engaging children’s imaginations, he believes, is one way of getting them hooked on reading.
As for his book, Neil says: “Fantasy stimulates the imagination and visualisation takes a lot more effort. The TV just chucks images at you but with a book you create your own world.”
n Neil Whyke’s book, Bring It On, is at WH Smith in Rotherham and Waterstones in Sheffield.