Anger at accent on the negative

7th March 1997 at 00:00
Many primary teachers will have been mystified by the front page of The TES last week ("Anger at Labour rethink"). The preliminary report of Labour's Literacy Task Force, outlining a 10-year strategy for raising standards of literacy, had been published the day before. A Reading Revolution recommends the most substantial ever programme of professional development for primary teachers to enable them to teach reading in accordance with best practice. It provides details and a timetable of how this will be done. It is a report which, if implemented, would affect - and in my view benefit - all of our 190,000 primary teachers.

The report was welcomed by the National Association of Headteachers, the National Union of Teachers, the Confederation of British Industry, national representatives of parents and governors and nearly 400 heads and teachers who attended the conference at which it was launched. One leading businessman called it a landmark. Here was a front page story.

Yet The TES relegated the report's contents to an inside page and devoted its front page to an inflammatory critique of it by a professor who appeared to have read a different document. Harvey Goldstein's chief point was the lack of validity of league tables. Odd, because league tables do not feature in the report. Why, then, did The TES give front-page attention to these remarks when there are 190,000 potential readers who presumably would like to know how the report would affect their work?

It seems to be a shibboleth among journalists that conflict, however trivial, sells more papers. My concern is that by highlighting the unconstructive comments of one academic, The TES fed the demoralisation of primary teachers, submerging the positive message.

The report says: "Primary teachers have found themselves a target for criticism, particularly in relation to the teaching of reading over the last few years. Yet I amazingly there has never been a major national initiative to enable all primary teachers to learn the most effective methods of teaching reading I" We propose a remedy for this wholly unacceptable state of affairs. We gather together research from across the globe as well as the Office for Standards in Education. Evidence which all points to what works best in the teaching of reading. At the core of our recommendations are "the literacy hour" and the systematic teaching of phonics, both of which are shown by this research to be crucial.

Virtually all children, even those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, can learn to read well if they are taught in accordance with this best practice. The evidence from New Zealand, Australia , the US and the best schools here proves it. In recommending this approach, we pay warm tribute to the present government's National Literacy Project. We suggest how the NLP could be built upon to enable every primary teacher to receive at least four days' training in the teaching of literacy by 1999.

We also urge that through a National Year of Reading, aimed at promoting literacy and parental support for reading, an incoming government should seek to change attitudes so that primary teachers feel they are swimming with the flow of the cultural tide. If our proposals are implemented, we are confident that standards of literacy will rise dramatically.

The success of this strategy depends on the next government giving literacy top priority, developing a coherent strategy and pursuing it over several years. And primary teachers will need to respond positively to these opportunities. The positive response at the launch suggests they will.

I hope that, in spite of the pressures on them, primary teachers will read our report and respond to it directly. Thoughtful comment and constructive criticism are of course welcome. We want desperately to get it right. If we do, then between us we can transform standards of literacy in the next few years. We can ensure that the next generation is the first in history to be fully literate. As that transformation takes place there will no doubt be a persistent and miserable huddle of commentators on the sidelines arguing that it can't be done. We will be able to ignore them safely. Primary teachers will know it can be and there will be millions of literate children to prove it.

Michael Barber is chair of the Literary Task Force whose preliminary report, A Reading Revolution: How We Can Teach Every Child to Read Well, was published last week

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