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Labour gets back to basics

The Labour party intends to launch a back-to-basics drive in the classroom if it wins the next election.

More emphasis on basic skills, classroom discipline and whole-class teaching will become part of a drastic overhaul of teacher training. The plan has been sparked by the party's dissatisfaction with the quality of newly-qualified teachers. The reintroduction of the probationary year for teachers is also under consideration.

The campaign to raise standards will also include a new literacy task force to examine ways of ensuring that every child leaving primary school does so with a reading age of 11 by the end of a second Labour term of office.

Announcing the plans to the National Association of Head Teachers' conference in Torquay this week, Labour education spokesman David Blunkett said: "Teachers must be taught more about how to manage a class, including how to teach a whole class, as teachers in other countries are taught. Teaching the basics from the start must be the overriding goal. That is why we must not simply have league tables of the teacher-training institutions but a plan of action for improvements as well."

Last week The TES reported the Government's intention to introduce league tables for teacher-training colleges which might include how many students went on to get jobs and a rating based on reports from the Office for Standards in Education.

In an attack on the orthodoxies prevalent in some teacher-training institutions, Mr Blunkett said: "Teachers must use teaching methods which work and are not just the latest fashion . . . It is self evident that phonics are a crucial tool for teaching children in the early stages and can significantly add to the accuracy and fluency of reading by children of all abilities. "

The teacher unions say money must be spent if good graduates are to be attracted to the profession. David Hart, general secretary of the NAHT, said he doubted whether the Teacher Training Agency's recruitment targets of an increase of 50 per cent for secondary and 34 per cent for primary teachers will be met.

He said: "We read of a crisis in recruitment and massive teacher shortages before the end of the decade. David Blunkett's answer is to persuade people from business, industry and the media to become teachers. It may be a partial answer, but it is like sticking a plaster on a gaping wound. It is no substitute for a sustained and well-resourced strategy which will encourage the best young graduate brains to enter the teaching profession."

A major plank of Labour's back-to-basics campaign is in improving the standards of children's literacy. Mr Blunkett also used the NAHT conference to pledge a restoration of the Reading Recovery scheme cut by the Government last year, while announcing his literacy task force.

The task force will be chaired by Michael Barber, dean of new initiatives at London's Institute of Education, who with David Reynolds of Newcastle University, will look at ways of achieving Labour's reading target for every 11-year-old, unless they have a special need.

OFSTED's report published earlier this month on the teaching of reading in 45 inner London primary schools found that 40 per cent of Year 6 pupils had reading ages two or more years below their chronological ages.

Professor Barber said: "It is undisputed that reading standards, particularly in some parts of the country, are too low. The problem has been that while there have been ad hoc measures, for example the Reading Recovery scheme, there has been no overall strategy."

The task force will examine how reading is being taught and assess different methods and theories, determining the feasibility of Labour's target. It will look at the progress of the Government's national literacy centres, the work of local authorities such as Birmingham and will also comment on the effect of the media, particularly children's TV. It is expected to come up with answers within existing budgets.

Professor Barber said: "So far the Government has been blaming the teachers and the teachers blaming the Government for not providing adequate resources. This will have to stop. However, teachers must take responsibility for improving standards."

* A Labour government will designate the new school year in 1998 as the Year of Reading.

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