Commons Touch - Children and young people

Amid the various other matters which have been filling the media this week I am always determined to remember that there is a job to do as a constituency MP and to carry on doing it whatever the distractions. With this in mind I had a very interesting visit to Smarden School to hear about the work they do with the Driver Youth Trust.

This is a national charity dedicated to improving the life chances of children and young people, with a focus on those with literacy difficulties and who may have special education needs, particularly children with dyslexia. Its most important programme, called Drive for Literacy, is a whole school improvement model, which is crucially aimed at all staff members, from Governors to teaching assistants.

The key to this is not just to restrict expertise in helping children with special needs to a specially selected number of staff, but to make it universal  throughout the school. This means that all children who are having trouble with reading, writing, speaking and listening can not only be helped, but also, crucially, identified earlier than has happened before.

The Trust is now working both in Smarden and Pluckley schools, and the staff I met were hugely enthusiastic about the programme, even though they have been operating for less than a term. This is a very important national mission, as we have lower literacy levels among 16-24-year olds than Germany, Japan and Canada.

Nine out of ten of children with special needs are in mainstream schools, which is itself a good thing, but it means that we must do better in addressing their needs early enough to ensure that they do not fall behind their peers.

Literacy is of course the key to all other learning. The point was made to me in Smarden that maths questions increasingly involve the ability to explain verbally the reasons behind the calculations, so a decent standard of reading and writing is vital across the board.

Smarden and Pluckley are for the moment the only local schools taking advantage of the Driver Youth Trust programme, out of 70 schools across the country, but the Trust is very keen to expand. I strongly agree with the basic premise that improving literacy is the key to providing a path to a successful life, so I wish them all the best in their project.