Literacy blueprint unveiled

A new Government drive to teach the 3Rs to primary children could form the basis for the next national curriculum.

Draft programmes obtained by The TES are to be introduced in 25 local education authorities next month. They provide a highly detailed, prescriptive and controversial blueprint for teaching reading, writing and number for each term of primary school.

If adopted nationally, it would represent a massive increase in government control over what is taught in primary schools.

The documents have been welcomed by some teachers as giving them a solid structure to work with, but criticised by others as overly rigid and prescriptive. There are also fears that the two frameworks for literacy and numeracy will increase teachers' workload.

But in the run-up to the general election they are likely to be seized upon by ministers hoping that they will prove popular with parents.

John Major told Conservative Women's Conference delegates at the weekend: "We must raise teachers' expectations as to what's possible, ensure that every child is taught to read in a systematic and structured way, that they learn the alphabet and are taught the sounds these letters represent, and that a book in the hand is worth two in the library."

The documents show how each stage of children's knowledge should develop in skills such as mental calculation, phonics and reading comprehension, and the links between reading, writing and spelling. The frameworks will be used from next month by schools involved with the Department for Education and Employment's new networks of 13 literacy and 12 numeracy centres in 25 LEAs.

The Pounds 25 million project was launched in January by Gillian Shephard to combat low standards.

Within Government circles, debates are said to be raging about whether the documents form a firm basis for the revised national curriculum, due to be introduced after 2000, or whether the project is simply a pilot scheme in a small number of mostly urban local authorities needing extra help, with a range of views in between.

But chief inspector Chris Woodhead and both project directors insisted it was too early to predict the programme's future. Mr Woodhead said he hoped it would succeed and be in demand across the country. "If it does that, I guess understandably it will become mainstream."

National Literacy Centre director John Stannard agreed it had "the potential to be quite influential" if it succeeded. Asked whether it would form the basis for a national curriculum, he said: "I have been given no indication that thinking is moving in that direction. I think we will know within a year to 18 months whether it is generating that level of interest."

Education consultant and registered inspector Bill Laar said: "This provides the reading agenda for the next 10 years for schools nationally." He was convinced the programmes would be developed into part of the national curriculum, and all schools would be following them within two years.

He said the literacy document was very carefully structured and thoroughly prepared, and once parents saw it they would all want their children to learn its contents.But there would be knock-on effects. In combination, the two schemes could take up to 212 hours a day.

The scheme had high expectations of children, even the most able, and of teachers, and would demand very high levels of skill.

He said the literacy project would also ensure Government aims of increasing whole-class teaching and target-setting.

Other literacy specialists are less enthusiastic. Peter Hannon, of Sheffield University, said it was "bypassing teachers' thinking".

The documents are being used to train advisers and teachers, who will implement the schemes in 20 schools in each participating LEA from January.

Numeracy centres director Anita Straker stressed that nothing was set in stone. "If it works, fine. If it doesn't work, we will change it."

* Children could be given Government-approved textbooks under a proposal from Labour's education spokesman, David Blunkett. He said pupils in the Far East, Holland and Switzerland did well partly because they used the same textbooks in each country. In Britain, it would save teachers "re-inventing the wheel" for every lesson, he told a conference in London yesterday.

But teachers would be able to supplement basic tests with their own material, he said.

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