THE failure of primary schools to teach phonics effectively or to improve the writing ability of boys could put the Government's targets, on which David Blunkett has staked his job, at risk.
An interim analysis by the Office for Standards in Education of the National Literacy Strategy, introduced last September, says the children being taught least well are those on whose success the future of Mr Blunkett will depend.
In the 138 schools inspected, phonics was not being taught during the literacy hour in half the classes of eight and nine-year-olds.
The key group is eight-year-olds because Mr Blunkett has promised to resign unless 80 per cent of them achieve the benchmark in English and 75 per cent the maths benchmark by 2002.
In addition, the report suggests that not enough effort is being put into the teaching of writing, despite test results that show 11-year-olds boys are not performing well.
Overall, inspectors conclude that more good teaching is required if the Government's English target is to be achieved.
The most serious problem is in Years 3 and 4. In half of the classes for this age group phonics is not being taught. Even where the teaching of phonics does take place, it is being done badly in over a third of lessons, says the report.
However, ministers have already taken action. More than pound;22 million is being put into schools to provide an additional literacy support programme targeted at seven to 11-year-olds, particularly in Years 3 and 4.
The report says that in those year groups many pupils begin to fall seriously behind in their progress towards becoming fully literate.
And while the teaching of phonics in the first three years of primary school is improving, those children who do not acquire phonic knowledge and skills carry a deficit that inhibits the acquisition of more advanced skills.
It says: "It is essential, therefore that teachers of pupils in these year groups (3 and 4) ensure that word-level work, particularly in phonics and spelling rules and conventions, is given strong emphasis where assessment reveals that these fundamental aspects of literacy are not secure."
The report also emphasises the importance of heads in managing the literacy strategy. In just over half the schools inspected, the heads provided good leadership.
All the schools inspected have implemented a literacy hour and most reception classes chose not to phase its introduction. According to the report, children from the age of four and a half are able to concentrate for the full 30 minutes that the class is being taught as a whole.
Inspectors also found that only a third of the schools had good supplies of "big" books for reading together as a whole class and sets of books for guided reading used by children in smaller groups.
The National Literacy Strategy: an interim evaluation is available from OFSTED publications centre, PO Box 6927, London E3 2NZ, telephone 0207 510 0180.