Falling Behind

‘Poorer children falling further behind by age 11’. This worrying title of an article in the Times (7.9.22, Nicola Woolcock) outlines the still-strong connection between poverty/disadvantage, and school achievement. Apparently, the academic gap between poor children leaving primary school, and their more fortunate peers, is now the biggest for ten years. This disadvantage gap measures the difference between those who have been on free school meals or in care, with their peers. SAT results have fallen considerably since 2019. 

Why? Covid has obviously had much to do with fall-back. Children are also preferring screens to books. Could the primary school pupil-teacher ratio be too high for some schools in disadvantaged areas? Are enough teachers trained thoroughly enough, to support literacy development for learners who start to struggle in Key Stage 1, and throughout Key Stage 2? All of these reasons.

In a secondary school I support, around 57% of this year’s Year 7 intake have reading ages below the expected level: seventeen have RAs below nine, the lowest 6.8! Worrying indeed, as the chances of such students being able to fully access the secondary curriculum without urgent intervention is slim indeed.

So what is to be done? The Government has set goals for 90% of Year 6 to reach expected standards in reading, writing and maths by 2030: raising urgent questions. Firstly, just how is this 90% goal to be reached – when current figures for disadvantaged children hover around 60%?   Secondly, what urgent strategies are needed for learners already in secondary education who are way behind NOW, to prepare them for Post 16? 

Firstly, why are so many primary-aged children failing, and at which point do most learners begin to fall behind? Aside from the question of pupil-teacher ratio and adequate training in literacy, is  more research also needed to identify the key strategies that work best in KS1 and KS2? How far is disadvantage also linked with SEND? 

The second question: what might any secondary school with low achievement intakes do to help learners catch up? Might Intervention include:

  • Urgent help with reading – not just phonics? For some learners, the entire package may need to include speedy ‘sight’ recognition of high frequency words that make up a large percentage of language;
  • Linking reading with context: whatever is taught separately through additional intervention must also be connected with, and practised through, a range of different texts, involving ‘subject’ content;
  • Focusing on cueing unfamiliar words from context – using texts with gaps for learners to complete (cloze) remains an accepted strategy for developing the ‘wholeness’ of reading skills;
  • Careful, meticulous teaching of technical subject vocabulary – that help to give each subject its defining character. 

These four strategies, in place as part of a whole school targeted catch up plan, will help many secondary students. Inspiring those with RAs below 9 to remain motivated must also be a first step. Boredom is an ever constant threat to motivation. I see so many children switch off. Rarely do schools use games and fun activities to develop literacy or maths skills. Technology is not always the answer. Might groups play ‘Snap’ to develop speedy recognition of high frequency words: after having written out the words on squares of card? Words in different phonic groups written on card, cut into ‘beginning, middle and end’ jigsaw pieces (f/oo/d, pr/ou/d, scr/ea/ch)), encourage children to see how single syllable words are formed, often beginning with CVC clusters of grouped letters. 

Once children fall behind, catch up is difficult. So let’s do better to ensure that fewer learners fall behind in the first place.  My books for parents (Parents Help Your Child Succeed), support all parents to know what their child should learn at KS1 and KS2. Check them out! 


« Back to Blog