University students are being sent into London secondary schools to give urgent help to the growing number of children who turn up unable to read properly.

Some 12-year-olds are so behind that they are unable to study the secondary curriculum properly and need intensive lessons to catch up, experts warned.

A £458,000 pilot programme was launched this week in five London secondary schools, including St Augustine’s CofE High School in Kilburn and Newman Catholic College in Harlesden, where the majority of pupils arrive with the reading age of a young child.

Specially trained postgraduate students from London universities are being drafted in and paid to tutor more than 300 pupils using the phonics method of reading.

Katie Ivens, director of education charity Real Action which is running the project, said: “Pupils are not in a position to understand and express meaning if they cannot read and write the words, sentences and paragraphs conveyed in text books and works of literature. Poor literacy results in poor opportunities.”

She added: “Their primary education has failed to prepare them for secondary school work.

“This places them in a difficult situation, and it is really not surprising that this has an adverse effect on their behaviour, as well as blocking their educational opportunities. What are intelligent young people to do if they can’t advance educationally? The situation is no less difficult for the schools.

How can secondary teachers teach children a proper knowledge-focused, subject-based curriculum if the pupils lack the required standard of literacy?”

It comes after the Evening Standard’s literacy campaign highlighted the problems in London. Last year the campaign raised £500,000 for Beanstalk — formerly known as Volunteer Reading Help — which paid for 600 volunteers to work with 1,800 children in London.

The Mayor’s Fund for London injected a further £500,000. The £1 million was enough to support another 2,000 children over three years. Forty staff from children’s book publishers Egmont are involved in a similar scheme.

The latest pilot project, known as the Butterfly Initiative, is funded by the Education Endowment Foundation and will be evaluated by the University of Durham. In each of the participating schools between 70 and 100 per cent of children arrive with a reading age below 10.

The Real Action charity has been teaching reading to more than 2,000 primary school children in Saturday morning classes since 1999. This is the first time they have held classes in secondary schools.

The lessons really help them

POSTGRADUATE student Claire Rivero, 26, spends eight hours a week helping secondary school pupils to read.

The social policy and planning student at the London School of Economics, pictured, was trained by the Real Action charity to teach the phonics method of reading, in which children “de-code” words by examining every letter and blending the sounds together.

She is paid £20 an hour to take part in the Butterfly Initiative and can fit the job around her university work.

She said: “The lessons really help these children. There is a ‘positive peer’ effect where the brightest students achieve well and bring all the others in the class up.

“If children do not have the basics then they have real trouble with spelling and writing. This course gives them so much confidence.” Miss Rivero, originally from America, plans to work in education policy.

Article by Anna Davis, published in The Evening Standard on 18 April 2013