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Children with reading problems must be a priority for Stormont

By Kathryn Torney

The literacy problems of Ulster schoolchildren must be a priority for the Northern Ireland Assembly if it gets up and running again next year, it has been claimed.

The SDLP's John Dallat was speaking following the news that the successful Reading Recovery programme is under threat as a result of a funding shortage.

The initiative, which has been running in Ulster schools since 1994, provides intensive one-to-one teaching for pupils with literacy problems, but is being abandoned by many schools as they cannot afford to staff it.

The South Eastern Education and Library Board has warned that the future of the successful reading programme is uncertain because earmarked funding is being phased out and will cease completely in March 2007.

The Government-funded training of teachers ended in June. However, the Department of Education has claimed that money will be available for next year through the School Improvement Programme.

The threat to the scheme comes less than two weeks after the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) reported that nearly a quarter of P7 children in Northern Ireland - around 2,000 girls and 3,000 boys - left primary school in 2004-05 with literacy skills below the standard level.

Mr Dallat said: "A lot of people with reading and writing problems feel worthless and then get involved in drugs and crime and end up in prison where often their needs are addressed for the first time.

"Sixty per cent of the population at Magilligan Prison cannot read or write and they probably would not be there if they had had a decent start in life.

"It is a bit of a false economy not to provide enough funding for Reading Recovery to run in schools.

"Literacy and numeracy must be a priority for the Assembly if it gets up and running again.

"The Department of Education needs to get out of its ivory tower, put its hands up and say it has failed some people when it comes to learning basic skills."

The Department is currently reviewing its literacy and numeracy strategy.

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