Viewpoint: This is a basic right for every child
Just days after a Westminster committee found that a quarter of P7 children here had sub-standard levels of literacy, a scheme aimed to help them is winding down for lack of funds.
What sense does that make when the proud boast of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown is that education is their top priority?
The Reading Recovery programme, providing intensive one-to-one teaching for pupils with literacy problems, is being abandoned by many schools because money earmarked for it has been drastically reduced in recent years. Specialist training for teachers ended in June and from March government funding is being withdrawn.
Problems with reading, especially in the early years, are increasing, so the only explanation is that the solution provided by Reading Recovery is too expensive. As the Government attempts to reduce the education budget, penalising over-spending by the boards, dealing with illiteracy will become part of a general "school improvement strategy".
Those with experience of the recovery programme, in the schools, say that its abandonment will be a false economy. At least 90% of children exposed to one-to-one teaching have benefited, not only in terms of reading but in their self-esteem. Without the specialist tuition, their schooling might have been wasted, leaving them vulnerable in later life to crime and drugs.
The tragedy is that children from already deprived areas will suffer most from the withdrawal of funds. While some parents can and will pay for private tuition, to improve their children's reading ability, many more will be unable. It can be no coincidence, as a defender of the programme, John Dallat, MLA, points out, that 60% of the prison population at Magilligan cannot read or write.
The Department of Education has quoted figures to show that over a thousand children, in 156 primary schools, are currently involved in Reading Recovery, and that a total of £29m, including £11m for teacher training, has been provided since 1998. Reviews of the strategy are on-going, but clearly as earmarked funds are withdrawn and schools are forced to economise, the literacy problem will grow.
No one should underestimate the difficulties of the Department, faced with falling school numbers, empty desks and a multiplicity of school interests to be met, at a time when post-primary education is being re-organised from top to bottom. Yet every child has a basic right to be taught to read and write, in the most appropriate manner, and if Reading Recovery works, it should be continued.
Either extra funds must be found, or they should be transferred from a less essential service. The answer, as usual, is for local politicians to take matters into their own hands, away from the direct rule ministers.