The Government's Pounds 25 million network of 13 literacy and 12 numeracy centres looked like a cut-price gimmick, a localised and less effective replacement for Reading Recovery, when it was announced by Gillian Shephard at the North of England Conference nearly a year ago. Now it has got to be taken seriously. The national directors - John Stannard, for literacy, and Anita Straker, for numeracy - are developing systematic and tightly knit programmes of great sophistication. Teachers from outside the project are already asking for copies, although the documents are still technically confidential.
The literacy programme goes far beyond the mere "basics", fleshing out in minute detail the entire national curriculum for reading and writing, developing children's ability to analyse literature and newspapers, to write poetry and a manual, and to understand the structure of our language. Any child who has thoroughly absorbed this formidable agenda will be an independent and clear-thinking citizen of the 21st century, able to deconstruct any government propaganda that comes their way. It makes progression explicit, not just in phonics, spelling and grammar, but in comprehension and creative writing. And it shows how all these skills help each other along. It makes the Centre for Policy Studies' call last week for children to master basic phonetic skills before having access to reading scheme or "real" books look silly.
There are, of course, difficulties, and their extent depends on just what the status of the project is. Officially, it is a pilot in 25 local authorities where schools and children need extra help with reading and writing or number work. Participation by schools is strictly voluntary. Mr Stannard hopes that before the project's five-year term is over, there will be banks of materials available to all schools. Both directors say their projects are still works in progress.
The danger comes with the desire to legislate, as some may want to do. This programme is too rigid, too detailed and too overloaded to be demanded by law of all primary schools as part of a national curriculum. It would create a straitjacket that would not fit all teachers or all children. In order to establish its links and progressions, it sets out a term-by-term programme that will not always tie in with other work, and it is hard to disassemble. Its structure is logical and systematic, but it is not the only way. With adequate training for teachers and heads, and extra resources, it could work very well for schools weak in these areas. It provides them with what to teach, leaving them free to develop creative ways to do it.
For teachers knowledgeable and confident about their literacy teaching, it would be stultifying. The picture of every child reading historical novels in Year 4, term 1, and science fiction in Year 4 term 2 will not be a popular one, and many will see the phonics strand as detailed to the point of confusion. Such things may be suggested, but not imposed. This work is too valuable to run the risk of alienating teachers.
Bill Laar (page 42) is right to say that it highlights the tug-of-war between the basics and the nine-subject curriculum. If these time-consuming programmes are what is needed, something has got to give.
But this is a matter for the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, which has begun an open consultation on the future framework of the national curriculum, in a countercurrent to the strong forces pulling in other directions. With a variety of projects in development, it is important for the education quangos - and the Department for Education and Employment, which is in charge of the literacy and numeracy centres - to pull together and co-ordinate efforts.
We learn this week that OFSTED is producing its own videos on teaching the 3Rs. Meanwhile, the Teacher Training Agency is developing a curriculum for the 3Rs, and SCAA is working on a "speaking and listening" component to go alongside the literacy centre framework.
If the national literacy and numeracy projects have done nothing else, they have focused minds on the importance of the basic skills, on how children grow as readers and mathematicians, and on reading as more than a technical skill. If teachers do not like their approaches, they will have to think very hard about their own, and be able to explain them to parents and the wider public.