Teachers' Tales

The literacy challenge

by Simon Blower
on March 23, 2016


How can schools best raise children’s literacy standards? That was the over-arching topic of a high-level discussion that Pobble convened last month in Birmingham.

An inspiring venue, and a stellar cast

The venue alone was inspiring – the beautiful Shakespeare Memorial Room on the top floor of Birmingham Central Library, with views across the city. But it was not simply a panoramic view of the issue that we hoped would come out of the roundtable. We – Pobble was represented by me, by Jon, our chief executive, and by Adam, one of our great teachers – wanted to glean from our guests granular detail of the most effective methods being used to improve children’s reading and writing, and the obstacles in the way of achieving that.

We were privileged to be joined by some of the West Midlands’ most well-respected educationalists – Pank Patel, the Regional Schools Commissioner for the West Midlands; leaders and classroom teachers of primary and secondary schools from both academy trusts and local authorities; literacy advisers to the Department for Education; the head of a Premier League football club’s community foundation, which is embarking on a new drive to help youngsters in the area improve literacy; the head of a teaching school alliance; and a senior member of one of the country’s leading assessment providers. Our expert chair was the National Literacy Trust’s strategic lead for school improvement.

A fascinating discussion

It was a stellar cast, and our discussion ran for more than three hours, without a break, taking in the importance of whole-school leadership focusing on literacy as essential to drive change; teacher training; the role of parents; the use of technology; the impact of formal assessment on reading and writing standards; and the publication by the Department for Education of exemplification materials.

All of those are worthy of a blog on their own. However, I would like to focus on two particular issues that came up: the transition for pupils between Year 6 and primary school to Year 7 and secondary school; and how sport can be such a force for improved attainment. Both are key areas for Pobble.

Secondary school representatives at our discussion detailed how they are often unable truly to gauge the abilities of incoming pupils – though they may have the child’s results from their Key Stage 2 tests, these are often broad assessments. Pupils’ actual writing, which is what really allows a judgement of standards to be made, may remain at their former school. Pobble, by providing an online “classroom wall” on which children’s writing is published, offers an obvious solution – teachers at secondary schools can look up the work of their feeder schools’ pupils, including the departing Year 6 children, and can track an individual child’s work all the way through from the time that that primary school started using Pobble. It is an incredibly powerful aid for teachers, and the potential for secondary schools and their feeder primaries to work together via Pobble so that information on pupils’ standards is passed on is hugely exciting.

Pobble has long understood the power of sport to inspire children’s learning. If the motivation provided by turning children into published authors is one method, connecting sport with education is another, evidenced by Pobble’s Literacy Through Sport programme. It was clear from our discussion that schools are constantly seeking to provide a real purpose for writing – especially reluctant writers – and we have seen at Pobble how sport can have a transformative effect.

So it was heartening to hear from the head of the Aston Villa Foundation how his organisation is encouraging efforts to improve literacy levels for primary children in Birmingham. The foundation already does some fantastic work in schools in the area, with players reading to pupils and supporting the Premier League Reading Stars programme. It is organisations like this that we aspire to support with a programme for them that has already been praised by numerous sports clubs from football (Middlesbrough and Bradford City) to rugby league (Bradford Bulls) and cricket (Yorkshire County Cricket Club), as well as former Manchester United stars Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville.

A shared challenge

Improving literacy remains arguably our education system’s greatest challenge – no child’s life should be blighted by not being able to read and write well. But our roundtable demonstrated that there is not only widespread will from all quarters to tackle it, but real expertise, imagination and commitment.


Image by Basti V