[Guest post by Helen from Boriswatch, first published there]



Please excuse the title as, having grown up watching Bill & Ben on TV, I never learnt to speak proper like what Boris Johnson can.

In his chickenfeed column this week, Johnson plugs a new publication which claims to explain the high levels of illiteracy in London.  Is it a weighty tome by a renowned academic, with pages of appendices featuring peer-reviewed research?  No.  It's a pamphlet, written not by an expert in education but by a titled literary editor.  So Why Can't They Read? is published, not by an academic publisher, but by the Conservative think tank Centre For Policy Studies, the baby of Margaret Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph.  Joseph was the Tory Education Secretary who abolished O Levels and introduced the National Curriculum, both of which deeds seem to have been conveniently erased from the collective memory of the Conservatives.

What are the causes of  illiteracy? The author of So Why Can't They Read? finds from her extensive research...

"...recently been working as a voluntary teacher with a group of immigrants..."

...that, to summarise, it's because things aren't like The Old Days when teachers taught properly and Boris Johnson and his sister Rachel were taught to read on a sunny river bank by their grandmother.  Oh, and some children apparently refuse to use the approved Mayoral mix of shouty posh and Latin and converse in...

“Street” English, the argot in which children – both white and non-white – who live in the poorer areas of inner cities often speak to each other'.  

Ms Gross has evidently never encountered the grammar school-educated youth of Kingston or Richmond who can be heard affecting just such a lingo of a weekend in the leafy suburbs.

I have recently been reading a different pamphlet concerning illiteracy, Standards Of Reading 1948-1956, Ministry of Education, 1957.  Then, as now, poor, inner city schools had the highest number of pupils with poor literacy skills.  Then, as now, poverty and poor living conditions were responsible for low academic achievement.  Some examples of the pupils with the lowest scores in literacy tests in 1956:

He is the fifth in a family of ten, and a poor school attender, who works in a general store all his spare time.

Has eight brothers and seven sisters. His parents are said to be very uncooperative with the school. An instance is that when he had ringworm in 1954 his parents did not send him for the treatment arranged.

Has two brothers and two sisters, is said to come from a very poor home, and is badly clothed. He was found to be verminous at a medical inspection in 1954.

A boy whom all efforts have failed to interest in any school activity. He was found guilty of indecent behaviour in 1955.

Has a sister at work and two younger brothers at school. He is a well grown lad who is said to have become a local gang leader, to have been before the juvenile court on two occasions and to have a admitted to a good deal of petty theft as well as two more serious offences.

He is one of a large family of six boys and six girls...The home now has a television set and it is hoped that further progress will be made through the boy's desire to read the captions.

Surely 1956 was the height of The Old Days, before "irresponsible breeding" (what was that, Boris?), gangs, juvenile crime  and hordes of Hippy/Marxist/Communist teachers set on destroying the British Empire?