Seanad debates

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

5:00 am

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State and wish him well with his exciting portfolio. This matter relates to a literacy intervention or initiative - the Saturday literacy hour - for reluctant readers and writers for which I am responsible. The Saturday literacy hour takes the form of an eight-week course for children between the ages of six and eight who are in first and second class and who are considered to be reluctant readers and writers. Being a reluctant reader means one possesses some of the skills required and perhaps that one can read or write but that one does not want to do so. This is one of the indicators of difficulties with learning later in life because the key to learning is literacy. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that there are approximately 500,000 adults between the ages of 18 and 65 in this country whose literacy skills are at level 1. This means that they cannot read the directions on a medicine bottle.

I have discussed this matter with the chief inspector from the Department of Education and Skills, Dr. Harold Hislop, who will be coming to inspect the work being done on the Saturday literacy hour course during November. I am taking this opportunity to seek the support of the Minister of State in the context of opening discussions with the Department in the context of achieving accreditation for the newly-qualified teachers whose skills are critical to the delivery of the course. I would really like him to address that issue in his reply.

The Saturday literacy hour course began with 17 children on board. There are now 23, an increase which took place over the course of one week. The breakdown relating to the children on the course is 50-50 - that is, half are Irish and half are non-nationals. The course is on offer at Oranmore library, which is a superb location given that it is a public space that is open to all. The library does not open until 11 a.m. on Saturdays but the course commences at 10 a.m. This means that the first hour - each session actually runs for 75 minutes - is dedicated entirely to the children. The final 15 minutes is open to the public in order that people might witness what we are doing. The librarian has informed me that each week the demand for places on the course increases. The course has only been running for three weeks but the response to it has been incredible. It is amazing how enthusiastic people are about this course.

The Saturday literacy hour is successful because it is community-based and is held in a public space, namely, the library, which parents and children feel free to visit. It is really important that it is not held in a school because children who are reluctant readers and writers may perhaps associate school with work. We do not give out homework as part of the Saturday literacy hour unless the children want us to do so. Many of the children we want to become readers and writers would not necessarily wish to visit the library under normal circumstances. So there is an added advantage in that regard.

I have received co-operation from five local primary schools in respect of identifying children who are reluctant readers and writers. There are four newly-qualified teachers involved with the course and all of them work free of charge. I work with them to plan each Saturday literacy hour in advance and then we evaluate each session afterward. Every week the newly-qualified teachers submit to me information relating to the activities in which they intend to involve the children. These activities are based on an agreed theme. Following each session we spend approximately 30 minutes evaluating its effectiveness and engage in forward planning in respect of the next week's session. This is a really good working arrangement.

The 75 minutes of each Saturday session are incredibly intensive in nature. As already stated, there are 23 children signed up for the course and working with me I have four teachers, the librarian and two enthusiastic helpers from sixth class. As the Minister of State will appreciate, those are incredible ratios. We are doing a day's work in the 75-minute session because we have such good ratios. The children on the course are all encouraged to join the library and to take home a book each week. This is a really positive step, particularly in light of how reluctant many of them would previously have been to borrow a book. The assistance of the two sixth class helpers to whom I refer is useful. In view of the short duration of each session, these two helpers assist us in maximising the time available for the children on the course. They are extremely keen to do real work with children and as the course develops, we are encouraging them to become reading buddies for their younger counterparts.

There is a 15-minute briefing for parents at the outset of each session. This is extremely effective because it allows us to build trust and to make parents aware of what we are trying to achieve with their children. Parents express a great deal of interest in linking from one session to the next and some are even seeking homework. As already stated, the latter is optional. Those of us who work on the course are very open with the parents and are willing to make ourselves available to everyone. This makes the work we do extremely powerful in the context of assisting the children. As I stated earlier, each session is open to the public for the final 15 minutes. Many people wander in at that stage and can see the children working on their literacy skills. This presents a very positive image. There is no cost to parents or children in respect of the Saturday literacy hour.

The Minister of State will be aware of the national literacy and numeracy strategy. The difficulty with this strategy is that it does not involve many community-based interventions. The Saturday literacy hour is an ideal community-based intervention and could be replicated nationwide at no cost. However, additional personnel would be required. There is an oversupply of newly-qualified teachers who cannot obtain classroom placements at present. If they could obtain accreditation for working on the Saturday literacy hour and if, perhaps, 20% of the final marks relating to their diplomas could be awarded in respect of this work, then I am sure the course could be rolled out nationally because there would be sufficient teachers to assist in running it.

I am requesting that the Saturday literacy hour model be viewed as a pilot course for possible wider roll-out across other communities. This would support the goals of the literacy strategy relating to learning communities. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State will indicate what he proposes to do in respect of this matter. There is no reason we could not work with the Department of Education and Skills in the context of achieving the ultimate teaching diploma. I realise that what I am suggesting would represent a radical departure. However, with proper co-ordination, proper goals and proper measurement, it would be very possible to achieve something that would suit not only our needs but also those of the Department.

I am deeply conscious of the fact that the success of the Saturday literacy hour is dependent on the voluntary work of newly-qualified teachers. None of the latter has yet completed his or her diploma. It would be very desirable if teaching done on a course such as that to which I refer - under the supervision of an experienced and qualified teacher-coordinator - would count towards a certain percentage of the final marks relating to the higher diploma. It could also, in time, count towards a master's degree. This would be of assistance in achieving two important things, namely, encouraging newly-qualified teachers to become involved in voluntary work and, probably the greatest gain, ensuring the sustainability of the course into the future as a community-based literacy intervention that will help produce a nation of readers and writers. Literacy should never be taken for granted because it is one's passport for learning and life.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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I thank Senator Healy Eames for bringing this project to my attention. Literacy and numeracy are among the most important life skills taught in our schools. We are determined that no child should leave school without having mastered these skills to the best of his or her abilities. That is why is the Minister, Deputy RuairĂ­ Quinn, launched the national literacy strategy on 8 July last. Ensuring that all young people achieve high standards of literacy and numeracy is one of the key aims of the Department of Education and Skills and its Minister, Deputy Quinn.

The key to the success of the literacy and numeracy strategy will be the engagement of the whole community in ensuring that the strategy is fully implemented. Developing literacy and numeracy is not the business of schools alone, and families and communities also play a key role by setting high expectations, providing good role models for learners and providing every opportunity for children and young people to become more proficient in literacy and numeracy. The literacy and numeracy strategy acknowledges the important role that libraries can play in supporting communities, families and young learners to develop better literacy. Libraries and librarians are an important resource in supporting children's literacy and our public library services have been to fore in promoting reading over many years. Public libraries enable families to support their children's literacy development through the range of resources and information they make available in a free, open and informal setting. Whereas libraries are an excellent resource for all families, they can be of particular assistance to families who find it difficult to meet the cost of providing a rich range of books and educational resources in the home.

The project referred to by the Senator, based in the Oranmore branch of County Galway library service to support children in developing their reading skills, is a very fine example of what we have in mind in the literacy strategy. We compliment Senator Healy Eames for the leadership and commitment to voluntary effort that she has shown in initiating this project, in organising the participation of children in the workshop and in building fruitful cooperation with the library service. From what I know of the project, it is an example of a public library putting its resources at the disposal of young learners to give them an opportunity to learn to read and to love to read. I wholeheartedly compliment the library service on its involvement in this initiative and also the young teachers who are voluntarily giving their time to support the project.

I fully support community-based intervention projects that support literacy and numeracy. The project gives children the opportunity to select books with expert guidance from professional librarians and the children are assisted in learning to read the books with professional guidance from teachers. I am delighted to hear from Senator Healy Eames that she believes it is successful and the Minister has asked the inspectorate of the Department to visit the project in order to provide a detailed report to me on how the project works, the profile of children who are involved, the activities organised and the impact that it is having on children's learning and reading habits.

In the brief time left I should clarify that any accreditation with regard to teaching practice for trainee teachers is a matter for the Teaching Council. I take on board Senator Healy Eames's comments regarding lateral thinking being applied to the project, which is to be welcomed. I contend that if there is a visit by the senior inspectorate, we would proceed from there as such engagement is positive. It is important to note that the conditions for registration as a teacher are a matter for the Teaching Council and not necessarily the Minister. The supervisory role relating to teachers in training would be deemed as a matter for a school principal.

That is not a negative reply but rather a suggestion that the Senator could have engagement arising from the impending visit by the inspector. More lateral thinking should also be applied. I wish the Senator well in the endeavour and we should support it in so far as we are able, although we should be mindful of some of the constraints the Department may be under because of its competence and that of the Teaching Council with initiatives such as this.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State and he is correct that it is a community-based initiative centred on lateral thinking. The library is fundamental to it and the very enthusiastic librarian there has been wonderful. I take the Minister of State's point that it is a matter for the Teaching Council and that the inspector is coming to visit at some stage in November. What is the link between the inspector and the Teaching Council and how could we engage with the Teaching Council before the course ends on 10 December? That does not mean we will not have another course in the spring but we should make the most of this one and learn in order to replicate it. If we get a good, tight and well-structured model here, there is no reason we could not roll it out regionally or nationally. We have the required personnel.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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I take the Senator's point. The project, by dint of her involvement and active participation, will survive on its own merits. It will do so owing to the number of stakeholders and the commitment of the people involved. If there is to be engagement on accreditation, it will solely be a matter for the Teaching Council. If this could be referred to the inspector in the course of an impending visit, the relevant conversation should take place. If the Senator made a representation to the Teaching Council, which is an independent body, it could be a way of engaging on the subject.