HC Deb 17 December 1969 vol 793 cc1509-18

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Harper.]

11.27 p.m.

Mr. John Tilney (Liverpool, Wavertree)

Most of Britain will have been interested tonight in prices and incomes, yet history may say that this Adjournment debate was more important for future generations. The Schools Council Report quotes from the Plowden Report that teaching a child to read is still…a major occupation since reading is a key to much of the learning that will come later". Reading opens up new worlds of interest and delight. It stimulates imagination and invention, as did the first printed books to the few who had at that time the key to the meaning of the characters.

It is just an accident of history that the alphabet available to mediaeval clerics, who translated the Bible into the vulgar tongue, was the Latin one. It had only 23 characters. Its old monumental capital letters were increased later by three. English, however, has 40 sounds. How much easier it would have been for children throughout the last 500 years if there had been 40 alphabet characters. Instead, they have had to learn, with the upper and lower case ones, not to mention script or the multiplicity of sounds that single Latin letters can signify, about 2,000 characters used in traditional orthography. How much better to take this great hurdle against communication by stages. Hence, to me, the importance of the Initial Teaching Alphabet, or I.T.A.

I should like to pay tribute to this invention of Sir James Pitman, for many years the Member for Bath and grandson of the inventor of phonetic shorthand; also to Mr. Speaker, who, when he was a back bencher, saw the great possibilities which I have seen demonstrated in schools in Liverpool and so became a member of the I.T.A. Foundation, a nonprofit-making body, as is the right hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Gordon Walker).

The Report "I.T.A. An Independent Evaluation", by the late Professor Frank Warburton and Vera Southgate, and recently issued, is very clear and definite. I am sure that the House would wish to express to Mrs. Warburton and her family our sincere condolences on her husband's so sudden death. The report, which was carried out for the Schools Council on the use of the initial teaching alphabet as a medium for beginning reading with infants concludes, on page 277: The experimental results so far obtained suggest very very strongly that I.T.A. is, in fact, a more efficient medium for teaching reading to beginners than traditional orthography. The magnitude of the differences found in its favour in many different researches is unusually high. Moreover, following the publication of the Schools Council report, the National Foundation for Educational Research and the London University Institute of Education, commenting both on that report and on an earlier report, the I.T.A. symposium, concluded, also, that the medium"— that is, I.T.A.— has substantial advantages over traditional orthography in the early stages of teaching children to read". They then, calling attention to the role of research in determining policy, urge teachers and others responsible for the important decision as to how and by what means reading should be taught, to examine the evidence and to recognise that on what they decide depends the welfare of countless children—especially those who now have difficulties". We know, according to the literacy survey of the Inner London Education Authority, how backward are many of the children under the London Authority. What percentage of these are taught in traditional orthography? Children of immigrants elsewhere in Britain must be finding our spelling equally hard. How many infant schools in London now use I.T.A.? And what percentage is that of all London infant schools? Perhaps the Minister will say whether the I.T.A.-taught children in London are more literate at their particular age than their traditional orthography neighbours. These are questions which need answering.

The great American nation has been so appalled by the social, economic and racial consequences of frustration and failure in learning to communicate that they have very recently adopted "The Right to Read—Target for the '70s" as a national enterprise. Should not this also apply to every child here? Yet, according to Dr. Joyce Morris, in "Reading in the Primary School", N.F.E.R. Publication No. 12, only a little more than half of the children go to their junior school after two and one-third years in the infant school having become successful readers—that is to say, capable of sustained and effective reading in traditional orthography. The other half do not succeed, and suffer greatly because of their inability, during the following eight years, to profit sufficiently from the potentially wonderful education provided for them. Those who, with I.T.A., learn to read, easily gain more than an extra educational year. They get years of pleasure with all the excitement of passing new frontiers.

I do not question the right of head teachers to decide on what alphabet their schools should begin, but I hope that they will all study the evidence both of reading in I.T.A. and making the transition to traditional orthography; yet that they will bear in mind that few people want to alter the traditional spelling of our English literature. Possibly head teachers ought to consider what their predecessors centuries ago thought about the sanctity of the Roman numeral when their attention was called to the new Arabic numbers. Perhaps, if they are doubtful about the value they ought to attach to research, they will attend on one day or two half days an I.T.A. workshop, and only after they have done so form their judgment.

In the meantime, may I ask the Minister what discussions she is having with the Scottish Office, the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs over the British Council, the Defence Department over education in the Army, or the Home Department over illiterate prisoners?

I am no educationalist. I became interested in this new, or rather expanded, alphabet—because 24 of the traditional characters are retained—because I believe that it is of British and ultimate world interest for there to be an international language, and that that language should be English. In many ways ours is an easy language. It has no genders and few cases, but its spelling is exceedingly difficult. I.T.A. makes that simple. Indeed, the experiments in Nigeria and recently in The Gambia are highly encouraging.

Is not it important that the literate masses overseas should also speak English? There is already a danger of a future Indian generation being unable to communicate with Australians because neither can understand the other's pronunciation of English. I.T.A. could automatically produce a really English tongue, which anyone in this House could understand at first hearing.

The report calls for more research. I.T.A. may not be the perfect answer, but, until a better one has been found which has been as well used and researched, should not it be adopted, so that more and more teachers may become experienced, and the researchers better able to decide what researches to attempt and more effectively to plan and carry them out? Finally, may I ask the Minister what she thinks of the report, and what action she intends to take on it?

11.36 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Gordon Walker (Leyton)

I think that you know, Mr. Speaker, why I am very glad to be taking part in the debate while you are in the Chair.

I should declare a past interest in this matter. Some years ago I was an adviser to the I.T.A. foundation, and in that capacity saw a good deal at first hand of the work of I.T.A. in the schools, and talked to a large number of teachers. I came to conclusions which seem to be borne out by the Warburton Report and the two statements which the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Tilney) quoted from—the National Foundation for Educational Research and the London University Institute of Education. One of the main conclusions to which I came, and which now seems to be established, is that the I.T.A. speeds up the learning of reading. This is the clear conclusion of the Warburton Report. I think also that the transition from I.T.A. to the use of the ordinary alphabet is natural and easy, though it happens at a different age for each child.

It is clear now that I.T.A. helps many children to read easily and fluently who otherwise would not be able to do so. About half our children going into junior school are not good readers, and this is a grave defect in our educational system. We still turn out from our schools at the end far too many who are illiterate or semi-illiterate. It is a terrible thing to be illiterate in a literate society.

I am certain that illiteracy is a cause of some kinds of bad behaviour in schools. I have seen how bad behaviour by boys and girls who cannot read when their fellows can has been cured when they have been put on to I.T.A. and have suddenly found the joy of being able to read.

I have the feeling that quite a bit of delinquency and crime may be due to illiteracy in our society, and in this connection I should mention the experience of the Army, which, in a school at Corsham, teaches illiterate soldiers to read by I.T.A. with dramatic success. I have been there and have seen it working.

I.T.A. is particularly of value to non-English speaking people who are learning English. It is the easiest of all languages and has the most difficult spelling of all languages. Experience has shown that I.T.A. is of great value in teaching English to immigrant children, and is a great advantage to the spread of English as a world language.

As the hon. Member for Wavertree said, there is a danger that speakers of English in different parts of the world will be able to communicate with one another in writing and not in speech, as I understand is so in China. He said that an Indian might not be able to communicate with an Australian, but I have seen a Madrassi trying to speak English to a Bengali and neither understanding the other, and I understanding neither of them.

We are good in this country at initiation in education, but I do not think that we are very good in the follow-through. It is absolutely essential that we do not interfere in any way with schools or local education authorities. None the less, we must find some way of following up research and initiation. I am not referring only to I.T.A. This happens in other fields, where there is good research and good initiation and then no great follow-up.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will answer these points, or pass some of these ideas on to the Secretary of State, because he and his Department have a rôle, as does this House, to play in what I might call the national education policy. I hope that my right hon. Friend will draw the attention of teachers to the Warburton Report and will invite them to approach with open minds the clear advantages of I.T.A. as a teaching medium. I hope that it will be possible for the Secretary of State to set his seal of approval on the Warburton Report, but, at the very least, either himself, or through the mouth of my right hon. Friend tonight, tell us what the Department thinks about that report.

11.41 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Miss Alice Bacon)

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Mr. Tilney) raised the question of the Schools Council's important report on the initial teaching alphabet and he has reminded us of the history of this new method of reading and of the interest and the efforts of some hon. Members. In particular, he has reminded us of Sir James Pitman who, although no longer a Member of this House, has worked so hard on this project. If I may say so, Mr. Speaker, I thought that your entry into the Chamber tonight was beautifully timed.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Mr. Speaker's past is past.

Mr. Gordon Walker

But not forgotten.

Mr. Speaker

I am not interested in any subject whatever.

Miss Bacon

It is perhaps as well, Mr. Speaker, that you did not come in two minutes earlier.

I join with the hon. Member for Wavertree in expressing our sincere condolences to Mrs. Warburton and her family on the death of Professor Warburton, one of the authors of the report which is the subject of tonight's debate. The hon. Member and my right hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Gordon Walker) asked what I think of the Schools Council's report and what action is to be taken on it. I believe—and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has expressed the same view in reply to Questions—that the report is a most valuable addition to our knowledge of the processes by which children learn to read. It is a document which calls for serious study, which I hope it will receive, from all who are concerned with the teaching of reading.

It is to be noted that while the report concludes with a statement that the initial teaching alphabet is not the final or the only solution to the problem of teaching children to read, it is mainly favourable to the use of the initial teaching alphabet. It finds that in the majority of schools infants using the alphabet learn to read earlier, more easily and at a faster rate than similar children using traditional orthography.

At the same time, it finds that after about three years of schooling the reading attainments of most children taught initially by traditional orthography are approximately equal to those of children whose initial medium of reading was the initial teaching alphabet. One has to remember—and this was put to me yesterday in some schools I was visiting—that the fact that children are using this alphabet earlier than they would otherwise use the traditional alphabet means that they have a longer period of reading when they are very young.

As to action on the report, the hon. Member provided the answer to this when he said that he did not question the right of head teachers to decide on what alphabet their school should begin. This is a curriculum matter, and I know that the hon. Member appreciates that responsibility for the curriculum rests with the local education authorities and the schools. My Department cannot tell, nor would it wish to tell, local education authorities and teachers what they should teach, or how they should teach.

The report and the initial teaching alphabet have, however, already received a great deal of publicity in the Press and on television and from Questions which have been put down to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other Ministers. They will receive further publicity through this debate. They will be covered in an article in a forthcoming edition of my Department's periodical "Trends in Education", and attention will be drawn to them in the Schools Council's newsletter "Dialogue", which goes into every school. And the Schools Council will be publishing an abridged and cheaper version of the report next year.

It is to be expected that numbers of local education authorities will organise conferences and discussions about the initial teaching alphabet in teachers' groups and centres, that the alphabet will feature in in-service training for teachers which is provided by authorities, institutes and colleges of education and other bodies, and also through my Department's short courses which, in the case of primary education courses, already generally include consideration of oral and written language. I do not think that there will be any lack of opportunity for teachers to become acquainted with the alphabet and with the exhaustive study that the report provides.

I could not answer tonight the questions put by the hon. Member about the situation revealed by the Inner London Authority literacy survey. So far as immigrant children are concerned, however, I would point out that there are already in progress, under the aegis of the Schools Council, two major projects in teaching these children English. One, based at the University of Leeds, has already produced teaching materials for the 8 to 13 age group and is now working on materials for infants. The other, based at the University of Birmingham, will be introducing trial materials for teaching English to West Indian children into schools next year.

It might be thought strange to be teaching English to West Indian children; but, after what we have heard tonight, it will be recognised why that is so necessary: there are, in fact, many different forms of English. There are questions in this sphere not only of language, but of the children's native culture. It will be for teachers to decide, in the light of this, to what extent the initial teaching alphabet and/or methods based on traditional orthography should be employed.

The hon. Member's reference to discussions with other Departments raises questions of Ministerial responsibility. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science is not responsible for education in Scotland. It is for the Ministers responsible for the other Departments named by the hon. Member, and the British Council, all of whom are aware of the report, to take such initiatives as they think fit.

I appreciate the deep interest in, and concern with, the teaching of reading, because this is a basic question. As the report states, a multitude of factors affect children's reading progress, and we have still a lot to learn about them even if we are to learn—again as the report says—that they are difficult, if not impossible, to separate. The report suggests that there should be further research. This is a subject that requires careful consideration in the light of the many claims for priority treatment of research projects in other Welds. In respect of reading ability generally, however, my Department has recently commissioned from the National Foundation for Educational Research a national survey of reading attainment in schools. The survey will be carried out in 1970 and, like the previous surveys carried out periodically since 1948, will cover pupils of 11 and 15 years of age.

The hon. Member may remember that the last survey, carried out in 1964, showed that boys and girls aged 11 reached, on the average, the standard achieved in 1948 by pupils aged 12 years 5 months. There was a corresponding advance among boys and girls aged 15. We should remember this when we sometimes criticise the reading progress in schools today.

While we must await the results of the 1970 survey before we can say that progress is being maintained, these results do not suggest an overall deficiency in the methods of teaching children to read. At the same time, there are clearly points at which traditional methods do not achieve the results that we would like to see, at which the children's view of the wider horizons is cut off by their inability to read properly and at which they are deprived of the excitement, as the hon. Member puts it, of passing new frontiers. The report of the Schools Council brings into focus one possible way of improving these children's lot.

My right hon. Friend talked of the difficulties of prisoners, and perhaps the effect on juvenile delinquency. I agree that this is a question about which we probably need to know much more, but anything that can help these people and the very young children in our schools is being pursued, and this debate, short as it has been, has served a useful purpose.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Twelve o'clock.