She was 10 and in the middle class of a three class country school where all the other pupils were aged 7, 8 or 9.
The best of these were reading chapter books, she, the eldest, was reading books below the level of the youngest – the very early readers with a few words in large font and clear pictures on each page.
I was there as a parent helper and listening to her read. When she got to the word mug and couldn’t read it I was perplexed because she’d read mum and jug earlier so knew the sounds.
After a few moments of fruitless attempts I pointed to the picture and asked her if she knew what it was.
“Yes, that’s a cup,” she said.
I said it was like a cup and asked if she had cups and saucers at home. She said she had cups so I asked if she’d heard of mugs. She hadn’t.
I explained what a mug is and we got on with the next sentence.
But I wondered about her home and family if her vocabulary was so poor she’d never come across the word mug before and couldn’t use her knowledge of words with similar sounds to make a stab at reading it.
This was her seventh school but in spite of the best efforts of her teacher and several parent helpers, she made little progress and she was there only a few weeks before her mother moved again.
She’ll be around 24 now and while I’d like to think she’d succeeded in spite of her homelife it’s quite possible she hasn’t and will have a child or children of her own, struggling at school because of what happens, or doesn’t happen, at home.
One of National’s aims is to lift literacy and numeracy standards. It’s one I fully support but this anecdote shows that education can’t just be left up to schools.
Colin James sums up the problem:
An underclass is a class without real opportunity. Do children get good nutrition and cognitive development in their earliest years? Those who don’t cannot learn at school and often end up as the enemies of society and economic development. And they pass on their life start to their children.
Key’s challenge is to intervene to give those children a true chance at life, as he had, well parented. Whether he makes a real start on that will define how truly unifying his prime ministership is.
Tackling poor literacy and numeracy would be difficult if all the problems lay in schools, because some of the problems are in society it’s even harder. There’s no doubt John Key and his caucus have the will to tackle it, the challenge is to find a way that works.