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Minister urged to back targets with cash

Dorothy Lepkowska on local authorities' reaction to the drive to raise literacy standards.

Education authority leaders have described as "challenging, but achievable" the Government's aim to have 80 per cent of 11-year-olds achieving the national literacy targets by 2002.

But they warned that success depended on schools getting enough money and support.

Each local authority this week received a target based on its existing levels of achievement in English.

Currently just over half of 11-year-olds reach the standard appropriate for their age - level 4 in national curriculum tests in English.

The targets have not been published but were given to local authorities in sealed envelopes during the National Literacy Strategy conference in London. They will now be negotiated with schools and a final goal agreed.

No authority will be allowed to set a target of less than 70 per cent and the annual improvements expected would range from 2.2 per cent to 5.5 per cent.

Stephen Byers, the school standards minister, told delegates from the 131 local authorities at the conference that poverty and social disadvantage would no longer be tolerated as excuses for failure.

He said: "That was the old approach. The new approach is not to use that as an apology for under-performance.

"Children who come from poor backgrounds are no less bright or less able but all too often there has been lack of ambition from teachers, or perhaps even local authorities and the Government."

He added that setting ambitious targets would "ensure that those youngsters have the opportunities all too often denied to them".

Mr Byers said that there were schools with a high proportion of pupils from deprived backrounds who nevertheless achieved good key stage 2 results. They would be held up as beacons of excellence.

But no high achieving school could become complacent or would escape the crackdown on standards. Even those already hitting Government targets would be expected to do better.

Most education authorities told The TES in a telephone poll that they believed the targets were achievable if money was provided.

David Wilcox, Derbyshire's education committee chair, said: "This is one of worst resourced areas of the country. To achieve these targets we will need to get class sizes down, as 2 per cent of our primary classes have 40 or more pupils."

Gloucestershire's education director, Roger Crouch, said: "We can achieve these targets if we make literacy an absolute priority and get the necessary funding over the next five years. This is crucial if we are to get the teachers and consultants we need."

The Government has earmarked Pounds 50 million for the literacy drive, which must be bid for by local authorities.

The largest proportion of the cash, Pounds 19m, will be spent on books. Some Pounds 14m is intended for supply cover, Pounds 7m for the 200 literacy consultants and Pounds 4m for 2,500 specialised teaching assistants.

A further Pounds 16m will be made available to pilot a literacy project at key stage 3 to continue the literacy drive in secondary schools.

* Every school pupil in the UK will receive a free Pounds 1 book voucher on World Book Day next year. The event - celebrated on April 23, Shakespeare's birthday - will be commemorated with a special anthology free to voucher holders, it was announced today.

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