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Heads condemn literacy hour plan

Nicholas Pyke reports on reactions to the Government's final chapter on the teaching of reading. The Government has published the final version of its national literacy strategy, announcing it will hire 200 consultants to retrain schools in the teaching of reading.

Schools must devise literacy action plans of their own and will come under heavy pressure to introduce the "literacy hour" pioneered by the National Literacy Project. The national strategy will be policed by the Office for Standards in Education.

While broadly welcomed, the document has come under fire from headteachers who have described proposals for a hour a day spent on reading as "authoritarian".

Teachers' leaders have also expressed concern that the new document makes little mention of poverty.

Labour's interim report, published shortly before the election, included a chapter on "addressing disadvantage" which promised to spend the fruits of an expanding economy on additional staff and equipment for poor areas of Britain.

This chapter is missing from the new document.

The final report also appears to backtrack from Labour's original promise to get all 11-year-old children up to level 4 in reading by the end of a second term in office.

Despite a fleeting reference to "the original remit", the only explicit promise in the new document is that four out of five pupils will reach level 4 by the end of a first Labour term - the year 2002.

"We welcomed the Government's recognition that social disadvantage is a factor in educational achievement; I hope that the new document is not a retreat, " said John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers. "I also hope that the proposals for education action zones aren't a substitute for the strategy outlined in the interim report."

The concern is shared by David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.

"We don't know that there is in reality any extra money for the education action zones. The jury's out on whether the government will be able to target additional resources at all pupils in all deprived communities."

The heads' union is particuarly exercised at plans for a literacy hour. This will not be compulsory, but OFSTED will expect to see it used. Schools must introduce the hour if they want to benefit from additional training money.

"I find this extremely authoritarian," said Mr Hart. "It will be very worrying to the vast majority of heads in the country. There is a clear threat that, unless you do the hour, and do it in the way the task force wants you to, that OFSTED will intervene.

"Guidance is one thing, prescription is another. It is a dangerous tendency, completely out of kilter with the rest of the White Paper."

A government spokesman said that the schools in the poorest areas will get substantial help under the new strategy because the training and professional support will be targeted at those schools which have furthest to go.

This, he said, is in response to consultation.

The National Literacy Strategy will involve: * Literacy training for heads, school literacy coordinators and dedicated literacy governors; * intensive support and training for those schools which have furthest to go to meet the target; * 200 consultants to carry out the literacy training; * a daily literacy hour; * school literacy action plans for 1998 to 2000. Literacy targets, agreed with governors and local education authorities, will be produced by all primary schools in autumn 98; * OFSTED to inspect the implementation of the national strategy; * three training days for primary staff to improve their skills.

The Government will announce the funding details for the national literacy strategy shortly.

Professor Michael Barber, director of the Standards and Effectiveness Unit said this week that a similar national campaign will be launched for numeracy. A report from Labour's numeracy task force is expected soon.

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