Stephen Byers, the education minister, said that if schools were falling behind the targets agreed by their local education authority, pressure will be put upon them to adopt methods of teaching which have been successful in similar schools.
The Department for Education and Employment this week published its list of literacy targets for local education authorities in England.
Mr Byers said: "In May we set challenging national targets for literacy to tackle the chronic under-achievement of our 11-year-olds in their English tests. In 1996, just 57 per cent reached the standard required for their age in reading and writing. That will not do - that is why we have set a target of 80 per cent by 2002."
He conceded that the targets agreed with local authorities were tough, and some councils had had to be persuaded to take them on.
"This marks a radical change, setting targets for local authorities and making them public," he said.
"It's a different approach to public service. The previous government thought market forces would deliver. We are saying we can't leave it to the vagaries of the market. We have set the target, but will offer a system of support. We aren't just setting them and walking away."
Even high-scoring authorities, such as Wokingham, which had a rate of 74 per cent in 1996, will be expected to improve to 90 per cent by 2002. The minister admitted it is hard for authorities with high scores to do even better, but said that in some cases complacency existed and must be tackled.
Allowances have been made for authorities where a high proportion of pupils have English as a second language. But social deprivation, measured by numbers of pupils taking free school meals, was not taken into account.
Mr Byers said: "We don't want excuses for failure. Many local authorities are in deprived areas, but poverty is no excuse for underachievement - it is a reason for targeted support.
"There is clear evidence that some schools in depressed areas are already reaching above the national average - if they can improve, all schools can improve."