Primary schools face their day of reckoning

Diana Hinds

Starting the literacy strategy in the same term that OFSTED looms is a worrying burden. Diana Hinds calls on a school bracing itself.

When the Conservative Government's National Literacy Project was, with much blaring of trumpets, reincarnated as New Labour's National Literacy Strategy, Henry Maynard Infants School, in Walthamstow, north-east London, was not one of those rushing to join the celebrations.

This is the literacy strategy destined, its supporters claim, to achieve the Government's ambitious targets of 80 per cent of 11-year-olds at reading Level 4 or above in English by 2002. With two months' countdown to implementing the literacy hour which forms the strategy's central plank, and the hefty pack of training materials newly arrived - the "lunchbox", as schools call it - the mood at Henry Maynard is one of smouldering apprehension.

"The evidence is just not there yet that the literacy hour is going to work," says Richard Slack, chair of governors. "It's almost as if on May 1 last year we elected a government that knew how to teach children to read. But I don't believe it: teaching reading is something people have been trying to crack for 30 years."

Henry Maynard School had volunteered for phase three of the Walthamstow pilot of the National Literacy Project, and was due to start work on it this autumn. But the unexpected change from being part of a voluntary pilot to following what seem to be government directives, like it or not, has profoundly depressed staff morale. It has also intensified the speed at which the new literacy hour and its trialling must get under way, inducing panic and unease.

Jaynn Taylor is headteacher at Henry Maynard, where literacy standards are well above average. "The two-day management training conference I attended was like a rollercoaster," she says. "You shove all your bags under the seat because they're all falling out, and on top of that, everything is falling out of your bags."

If the school had done the pilot as planned, she says, teachers would have been able to introduce literacy hour gradually, explaining to parents what they were doing as they went along. Instead, media coverage of the strategy "has given parents the idea that we've got it all wrong up to now" - and the school has had more criticisms from parents than before.

"As part of a pilot, you feel you're doing something valuable and you feel supported," says Jaynn Taylor. "Being told to do it takes away your feeling of professionalism and makes you feel devalued. It's a shame, because there was no need to do it this way: they could have let the pilot run its course and extended it."

As well as adapting to the demands of the new literacy hour, Henry Maynard is also bracing itself for an OFSTED inspection in the autumn term. The school's previous report, in 1995, found standards in English "consistently sound throughout the school, and sometimes good", and 86 per cent of seven-year-olds reached Level 2 in last year's standard assessment tests. But Jaynn Taylor and Richard Slack are both concerned that the speed at which the changes are being introduced could actually mean a fall in literacy standards.

"The staff haven't been given enough time or training to feel confident about the literacy hour," says Jaynn Taylor. "My worry is that they will try to implement it straight away, but because they do not fully trust it, they will try to fit in everything else that they were doing before as well - particularly individual reading - and will drive themselves into the ground. We'll have teachers working through the lunch hour again, to hear children read, which we haven't had since Dearing slimmed down the curriculum."

Training for the literacy hour has scarcely begun. Jaynn Taylor, Richard Slack and Esther Jones, the literacy co-ordinator, have attended two training days intended to equip them to train the rest of the staff. This is planned to happen over two days in September and October. Richard Slack is not impressed.

"The training material was not particularly well delivered and gave you no opportunity to be critical, and I was not convinced by the people delivering it: it was very much 'This is what I've been told to tell you'." The three were taken aback to have large sections of the training manual read to them - a model for teaching technique?

Jaynn Taylor fears the rushed pace of the training will not give her time to feel confident about using the materials provided, "so I won't be giving the best training I could, and that will be reflected in the classrooms".

She is, however, enthusiastic about the range of texts and approaches promoted by the literacy hour, but even this has worrying implications financially: the Government's contribution of Pounds 1,000 per school for resources does not stretch far in an infants school with 13 classes.

Esther Jones's principal concern is that the rigid format of the hour will limit teaching flexibility. "It's so prescriptive," she says. "But people who are already doing the literacy hour do speak positively about it, even those who were sceptical before. We just have the feeling here that we've been doing a good job so why all this?" Jaynn Taylor believes the literacy hour is worth a try, but is keeping an open mind. She has some doubts, too, about children following the same literacy format for the whole of their primary schooling.

Richard Slack's prognosis is not optimistic: "In two or three years' time, we'll have teachers more or less cheating on how they do the literacy hour, teachers doing it regardless, and teachers who think they're doing it when they're not. We'll also have a great many teachers feeling guilty about literacy hour, despite good practice."

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Diana Hinds

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