Boosting literacy to transform outcomes for low-achieving students


White working class students are some of the lowest achievers in our schools and it is often a lack of reading ability that is holding them back. Senior leader Deborah Garfield discusses her work to tackle this issue.

White British students make up more than three-quarters of low-achievers in English schools and do worse than children from other ethnic groups with similar economic backgrounds. Boys outnumber girls as low-achievers at school by three to two.

These frightening statistics – outlined in the report Tackling Low Educational Achievement from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – are something that I have observed in every school I have worked in. 

In response to the problem, Ofsted is now focusing more on outcomes for pupils receiving Pupil Premium, and in the last two inspections I have been involved with, I have seen a real focus on boys on free school meals in particular – and rightly so.

The role of literacy

Literacy is the key to achievement and attainment. Without it the curriculum is meaningless. There is a long-standing gender gap in English attainment, and this is the key to understanding underachievement in boys – their literacy skills are not up to the mark. 

They cannot read and understand the questions and are therefore unable to answer, even if they do have the knowledge. Furthermore, if they can read the question, do understand it and have the knowledge, they are often unable to communicate it in the format that examinations require – the dreaded writing skills!

My previous two schools, where I have led on literacy, have been quite different from each other. The first had 26 per cent of students who were on free school meals or had been at some point in the past six years (known as the FSM-Ever6 measure). Underachievement of the middle-ability boys was a key factor – mainly due to low literacy levels and a lack of aspiration.

My current school has 78 per cent FSM-Ever6, with students entering with very low reading ages (51.3 per cent more than two years behind and 27 per cent more than three years behind in year 7). Both schools sit around 98 per cent White British in ethnicity terms.

Getting pupils reading is essential because it is linked to progress in writing. Many pupils leave primary school enthusiastic readers, but lose their love for literature as they move between key stages.

My own work at a school in Greater Manchester showed that there was a significant gap between the reading age and chronological age of our pupils. On investigation, we found that the gap in year 7 was noticeable but not cause for real concern.

However, this gap widened as the pupils moved through the key stages, and in key stage 4 our girls’ reading ages came down to join the boys at their already lower level. Clearly intervention needed to be front-loaded in the early years of secondary school to address underachievement (regardless of gender) and monitoring was needed to ensure that the work in years 7 and 8 continued into key stage 4. There should be no shame in a pupil being in reading recovery or on a reading scheme well into their GCSE years if that is what is needed.

Changes to the Ofsted framework in January 2012 raised the importance of literacy to the point where it should have been all along – at the forefront of education. A reading age of at least 12 years is required to access a GCSE paper, yet at my current school in Merseyside, 61 per cent of our year 11 pupils and 

40 per cent of our year 10s are below that threshold. These pupils will struggle to read their exam papers. When looking at the statistics in this school (with FSM-Ever6 lying at 78 per cent) it is our boys who are over-represented in the lower attainment bands.

Tackling the problem

So, we know that boys underachieve, and we know that White working class boys in particular underachieve – what do we do about it?

A place for phonics

Synthetic systematic phonics has been significant in aiding our lowest ability pupils in both schools, and I have targeted intervention at the pupils in years 7 and 8 who are more than a year behind in their reading age. 

Phonics focuses on decoding words, so we quickly assess who is unable to decode and who is able to decode but lacks comprehension. I use Lexia Reading and Toe by Toe together to tackle decoding issues with pupils, and a mix of Lexia and Guided Reading to address comprehension.

With a pilot group of year 9 boys working on Lexia and Toe by Toe three days a week for 20 minutes per session, we secured average gains of 39 months in reading age over a 12-month period. 

One pupil went from a reading age of 10 to a reading age of 15 in the course of the year, moving up two sets in his English and changing his GCSE target from an E to a C. I have no doubt that he will achieve if not exceed this. Did we wave a magic wand for this pupil? No – we just taught him to read, and once he could read he could access the world and his own education.


For those who were not “naturally talented” or creative writers (mostly boys), we created a formula for Level 5 success. We taught them how to structure using BOSS (Brainstorm, Organise, Sequence, Sentence) which forced them to write in paragraphs with a topic sentence at the start.

They then improved on this using VCOP (Vocabulary, Connectives, Openers, Punctuation) – using the pyramid to ensure they were hitting Level 5 in all four areas. A very formulaic approach to writing, but for many students they need this in order to be successful.

To assess the impact, we baselined all students with a piece of unaided creative writing before doing a week of BOSS and VCOP teaching. We then assessed them on a new piece of creative writing, but reminded them to apply what they had learned. No-one made fewer than two sub-levels of progress in their writing – not bad for a week’s teaching! 

The key was to ensure that they were reminded of this approach in every lesson and every time they completed a piece of extended writing, so it became an embedded skill. Of course, this was too simplistic for our more able writers and they were not expected to use this method – but it was a fall-back option that everyone knew in case they got stuck or went “blank” in an exam.

Whole-school literacy

Ofsted’s push for literacy and the new teaching standards make every teacher teach literacy, regardless of their subject. This is a huge step in the right direction. However, the skill-sets in schools do not always make this straightforward.

Teaching is a profession, and by its nature a highly educated one, but not every teacher or teaching assistant is able to teach the grammar and punctuation that we expect of our pupils. I know it’s perhaps controversial to say, but in schools where I’ve delivered training to staff about how to help the pupils with the technical aspects of language, I’ve had to put on extra sessions to improve teachers’ own knowledge in the area. 

Many of us haven’t talked about grammar and punctuation since our own school days, and it is an area to be addressed through teacher training to move our professional skills forward.

Literacy is something that primary colleagues have a lot more training and experience in than us in the secondary sector. 

In order to bring good primary practice into secondary school, I have always advocated the recruitment of an exceptional primary teacher who can take year 7 pupils through to year 8 using their own well-tried methods of teaching and language and integrate them into our key stage 3 systems more effectively. 

One of our primary teachers who taught her class for approximately 19 hours of their 25 per week made greater gains in progress for her pupils than the class who were set above them based on their key stage 2 data. The key to this was the fact that every lesson she taught – be it maths, history, RE, science or art – was about literacy. It really was a transferable skill that they used whenever they wrote, spoke or read. The key was consistency. If, as the Teacher Standards say, we are all teachers of literacy, then the same message will be going throughout the school and in every lesson, perfectly replicating the achievement of this talented young primary teacher.

Family factor

Of course, we do our best in schools, but we cannot ignore the family-effect on our pupils. We have them for only six to seven hours each day for five days a week, and what we do in school is sometimes negated by the influences at home. 

It is wholly unfair to say that all White British underachieving boys suffer poor parenting. So we need to look at the households themselves and provide support for pupils outside of the school walls and beyond the reach of the school day. Do pupils have access to the internet? Are there books in the house? Is there somewhere quiet where they can do their homework? Do parents read? How does the family view education? In areas with historic “worklessness”, where are the role models for these young people?

There are valid alternatives to GCSE

In my view, the government hasn’t helped with its relentless focus on “GCSEs only” which has had a negative impact on the achievement, but more importantly, the aspiration of our boys. Not everyone wants to go to university (and looking at the unemployment statistics for our graduates – not everyone needs to go to university). 

Trades were once highly valued. Where now is the merit in being a great plumber, a highly qualified electrician, mechanic, builder? 

Where some of our boys could be incredibly successful in the vocational qualifications that we as a society need (how hard is it to get a decent plumber?) we are instead forcing them into failure with a series of GCSEs that we need them to get as a school in order to satisfy our performance tables – but which may be of little value to them in their future lives. 

Are we doing this for them and their future as a citizen of our country, or are we satisfying league tables? Subjects that boys often do well in – design technology, PE, art, music – are all being side-lined by the core and English Baccalaureate subjects.

Is this really what we need in the UK, and if so, do we need everybody to carry these qualifications? Why don’t we decide what we really need, then adapt our education system to ensure that those skills are being developed in our young people ready for when they take up their positions in our workforce?


I wish I had all the answers to solve the problems our white working class students are suffering. Literacy is my passion, and this is where I have attempted to make some headway. 

Changes to the national curriculum now give us the opportunity in schools to front-load intervention at key stage 3 to ensure every child enters the start of key stage 4 with at least Level 5 writing and a reading age at or exceeding their chronological age. 

But we also need to give them something to aim for and an opportunity to celebrate success. Don’t chase a raft of Es at GCSE above good literacy and numeracy with excellent vocational qualifications that will fill a societal need and provide meaningful employment. 

Education needs to look after our boys to give them the opportunity to become men with a real place in our society.

  • Deborah Garfield was part of the 2011 cohort on the Future Leaders programme. During 2012/13 she worked as a senior leader at Shevington High School in Wigan, before she moved to become a senior leader at Parklands High School in Liverpool.
Future Leaders
The Future Leaders programme is a leadership development programme for aspiring headteachers of challenging schools. It offers leadership development, personalised coaching and peer-support. You can apply now for 2014’s intake by visiting


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