The other day, I was chatting to the owner of our local bookstore about the deplorable state of literacy in New Zealand. A woman in the store overheard the conversation and came over to join in. She mentioned that her 15-year-old grandson had the reading age of an 11-year-old and she was wondering what to do about it.
A few questions established that he could decode but was struggling with comprehension, and that at times he struggled to fully engage in spoken conversations. It also transpired that, apparently, at no time over the last 10 years he’d been at school had a school addressed his reading or suggested that he might need extra support. This woman was understandably concerned and wanted to know what they should do about the situation.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Our literacy report published last year began with the story of a Year 6 boy who had never learned his alphabet. I have heard far too many stories of children struggling with their literacy (or other areas of learning) and receiving little support. The prevalence of this is captured in the data. 19% of 15-year-olds do not meet the minimum benchmark for reading and a further 21% are only reading at the most basic level (which is below what is needed to fully engage in everyday life)[i]. And what’s worse, the proportion of children struggling with their reading is increasing while the proportion of children reaching the highest level of reading proficiency is decreasing.
The story of the boy from the bookshop raises some serious questions about how our education system is set up (or not) to support those students who need additional support. At the moment, despite the best intentions of those involved, we are failing far too many of our young people.
- How has this boy got through to year 11 without, apparently, any intervention or special support?
- Why is it left to families to advocate for their children?
- And if it does have to be on families, how do we support more families to advocate for their children and to seek the support that they need?
- How do we make high quality support services more available, both in terms of access and cost?
- Why aren’t schools better equipped (financially and with the programmes and trained professionals they need) to support children with additional learning needs?
- What would it take to improve things and why isn’t this happening?
- And perhaps most importantly, how do we create an education system that supports all children to thrive?
It shouldn’t take a chance encounter at a bookstore for someone to feel empowered enough to have a conversation with their school. And for anyone who thinks that this is a problem that only affects certain schools or certain groups in the population, it doesn’t. The bookstore encounter took place in an affluent central Auckland suburb, and of the three schools the boy had attended, two were private.
Our school system is failing far too many of our young people. We can and must do better. It is for this reason that later this year, The Education Hub will be undertaking a research report to explore the experiences of neurodivergent students and those who work with them – teachers, whānau, and support services – and how we can build a more responsive, inclusive, and supportive education system.
[i] Medina, E. & McGregor, A. (2019). PISA 2018 Reading in New Zealand: Reading achievement & experiences of 15-year-olds. Ministry of Education. https://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/publications/series/2543/pisa-2018/pisa-2018-reading-in-new-zealand