Everyone wants higher standards of literacy. The politicians recognise that it is the key to achievement in school, and that higher standards are essential preconditions for economic success. Business people want them to be higher too. Parents of course want their children to learn to read.
But the people who want higher literacy standards most are primary teachers. They know more than anyone the joy of watching a child grasp the skills of reading; of seeing a child find out about the real world, and many imaginary ones too, through books. And they know the pain, worry and frustration when, in spite of their best efforts, a child does not learn to read. There are few groups in society more self-critical than primary teachers and few things more likely to burden them with guilt than a child who does not learn to read.
Yet in spite of these good intentions, the evidence suggests that reading standards are not rising and may even be falling slightly. Reports by both the Office for Standards in Education and the Secondary Heads' Association in the last year have heightened concern. The last systematic attempt to look at reading standards over a period of time was made by the National Foundation for Educational Research for the National Commission on Education in 1994. It concluded that standards now are roughly the same as they were 30 years ago.
While this may scotch the view that there has been a drastic decline over the last generation, it is disturbing nevertheless. We would be appalled if we were asked now to accept 1960s standards in, for example, broadcasting or medicine. Moreover standards must rise continuously if we are to keep up with international competition.
We will not transform literacy standards by berating teachers. Nor will we do so by thinking up superficially attractive palliatives which grab a fleeting headline or two and then vanish almost as quickly as they appeared.
Instead we need to set an ambitious target which, if achieved, would bring us into line with the best in the world. We need to work towards it on the basis of a strategy in which government, teachers, employers and parents can have confidence. We need to base our approach on the best research we have about how to teach reading. We need to implement the strategy with care. And we need to stick to it for at least five years.
In a nutshell, showing a government how all this could be done is the task that David Blunkett has given the Literacy Task Force which he set up in May. The target he has suggested is that every child should be able to read well by the age of 11, unless they have a specified special educational need. Put another way, he would like to see virtually all 11-year-olds achieve Level 4, the national curriculum level expected of their age.
The target is rightly and necessarily ambitious. The 1995 national curriculum tests revealed just how far there is to go. Seven per cent of 11-year-olds recorded Level 5, 41 per cent Level 4, 39 per cent Level 3 and nine per cent Levels l or 2 (four per cent were unavailable).
Since the establishment of the Task Force - of which I am chairman - I have received a flood of correspondence, overwhelmingly from primary teachers themselves. It reveals a sense of excitement at the prospect of working together, on the basis of a shared strategy, towards an ambitious national target. There is a refreshing lack of complacency. It also reveals vividly the two areas in which primary teachers believe they need most help.
Firstly, there is a real thirst for more knowledge about how best to teach reading. It would seem from the correspondence that most primary teachers have not had the training they need in the latest developments in the techniques of teaching reading, unless they happen to have worked in a school where the head is well-read in, for example, the new phonics. Unless this issue is systematically dealt with there can be little hope of solving our literacy problems.
Secondly, teachers want to know more about how best to help children who can read learn to read well. Put in the blunt terms of the key stage 2 tests the question they are raising is: how can the 39 per cent of children who achieve Level 3 be enabled to achieve Level 4? This is one of the central challenges facing the Literacy Task Force, and indeed the country as a whole; yet in the popular debate about the teaching of reading it barely figures at all.
The Task Force will seek to develop thoughtful means of addressing both of these crucial areas so that within the foreseeable future there can be a major increase in the skills of primary teachers. The 13 Literacy Centres recently established by Gillian Shephard will no doubt be making a valuable contribution too.
The Task Force will also seek to clarify parents' responsibilities. We already have substantial evidence of good practice in the involvement of parents in helping children learn to read. We want to reinforce these successful but sporadic local experiments with a national drive to encourage parents to play their part. For example, shall certainly want to discuss with leading figures in the media how they can help promote a national campaign to improve reading standards. The media have often played a successful part in changing attitudes to the nation's major health challenges. They need to help in an educational challenge which is perhaps even more important: they can give all of us the sense of being part of a national crusade.
The task force has mapped out a programme of work over the next six months. By the middle of the spring term we hope to have examined all the central questions. Our first task, this month, will be to get an overall view. We will then go on to examine the more specific issue of what works in the teaching of reading.
After that, we shall examine school management issues, such as the involvement of parents. That in turn will lead to crucial issues of national strategy. For example, we shall want to look at the training implications of our thinking and about its implications for the work of each of the national agencies, such as OFSTED and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.
We intend to draw on the work of recognised experts by involving them in our meetings. We also hope to see good practice in action ourselves.
Finally, we hope that through The TES and other publications, we shall be able to continue the dialogue with teachers that we have already begun.
Michael Barber is professor of education at the Institute of Education, University of London and chairman of the Literacy Task Force.