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Meaningful parental involvement with children’s activities and interests is the most critical factor in their children’s development.

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A reading initiative described as the nearest thing New Zealand education has to a silver bullet faces an uncertain future.

Reading Together, a longrunning reading initiative in primary schools, has transformed children’s reading. Students gain the equivalent of a year’s reading progress through a fivehour intervention, with the gains maintained in an “upward trajectory”, according to the Ministry of Education’s own documents.

The programme, which had been run on a shoestring since the 1980s, cranked up a gear after being championed by the Māori Party’s Dr Pita Sharples in 2011. Now, however, a key role driving it in the ministry has been disestablished.

Reading Together is a workshop for parents, children, teachers and librarians developed as part of Jeanne Biddulph’s master’s degree research project at the University of Canterbury in the early 1980s.

The programme is based on the ideas that:

  • most parents try to help their children with reading, but many well intentioned parents use approaches which are unhelpful and confusing for children
  • uninformed help may hinder
  • classroom teachers can’t provide sufficient one-to-one support for children.

Powerful influence

Biddulph found in her research that the home environment has a powerful influence on what children and young people learn. Meaningful parental involvement with children’s activities and interests is the most critical factor in their children’s development. But uninformed involvement can have negative effects on learning. “Different types of parental involvement can have large, small, or even negative influences on student achievement,” says Biddulph.

Māori Party – former champion

The programme consists of four 75 minute workshops spread over seven weeks for small groups of parents and whānau.

Up until 2011 Biddulph and her family financed the programme for many years through the Biddulph Foundation. It was only the Māori Party’s championing of Reading Together that led to co-ordinated government financial support in the first place.

The government’s support is helping 30,000 parents and whānau take the workshops from 2012 to 2016. As well as New Zealand, Reading Together has been picked up overseas, most recently in the United Kingdom, where it looks likely to be rolled out in schools.

Just when the future looked certain, however, the ministry disestablished the coordinator’s position. It says that the project will continue, but some involved have their concerns.

Katrina Casey, head of sector enablement and support, says the ministry remains “absolutely committed to it, recognising the impact it has had on raising children’s reading achievement.”

Casey says the Reading Together co-ordinator role was always a time-limited contracted role and is no longer necessary. “Our directors of education with their Reading Together leads and senior advisors remain responsible for the operation of Reading Together in their areas.”

However those who have worked closely with the programme fear that as teachers turn over the impetus to continue the programme in schools could be lost without a champion at the ministry.

John Good, the coordinator who managed the project at the ministry from 2011, says he hopes that the body of support in the sector will ensure that the work continues. “Where it has been implemented schools have themselves seen the transformational shift that the programme achieves.” He says that managing the Reading Together programme for four years was the greatest privilege in his professional career.

The party line

Liz Horgan principal at decile one St Joseph’s School Otahuhu has been using Reading Together since 2005 and can’t speak highly enough of it. Every family in the school has been through it and it is the best programme the school has used to create links between home and school and teach children to both love reading and read independently.

Horgan says it is a shame that the ministry pulled the plug on Good’s position just as he was forming very good liaisons with other organisations such as the New Zealand Library Service and the New Zealand Book Council. When Horgan spoke to the ministry she says she received the “party line”. “That was: ‘it had been rolled out to so many schools and it would be self-sustaining’. We have heard that so many times from the ministry,” she says.

Good, who is said to have put his heart and soul into the job, says the risk in his mind is that the ministry fails to fully optimise the programme by supporting schools in an ongoing way to effectively embed the programme particularly when there are staffing changes.

Some champions of Reading Together worry that it would be easy for the funding to be subtly diverted to other projects promoting literacy to Māori and Pasifika and other students and whānau in low decile schools. They also worry that natural staff turnover in schools where the programme is running could result in the fidelity of the programme being lost and hybrid versions only loosely based on the research emerging.

There is also a question mark over the limited ongoing funding, which runs out in the middle of 2016. The ministry says it will work with the Biddulph Group in June 2016 on how to continue funding.