Box of tricks;Primary

15th May 1998 at 01:00
Sue Palmer watches primary teachers try out the new National Literacy Strategy training materials.

Catherine Williams is apprehensive. As language co-ordinator in a large primary school, she has to introduce the literacy hour next term and ensure that the staff know the literacy strategy framework and are able to teach it. She's read the framework document and knows it's tough; she also knows that staff at Roskear county primary school in Camborne, Cornwall, are weary and demoralised after years of implementing national curriculum orders and reviews. The prospect of the coming months is not cheering.

Headteacher Pete Brinton is in two minds. He's heard good reports about the literacy hour from project schools that trialled it and is interested in anything that will raise standards, but he's deeply concerned about how the initiative will affect his staff. "It's another load of bumf for them to read," he says, "another load of 'do this, do that' imposed from on high. It could end up being completely counter-productive."

They both stare suspiciously at a suitcase-shaped box, 12in by 6in by 9in, with the words "Literacy Training Pack" emblazoned across it. Boxes like this will be distributed to all primary schools in England later this week, to help language co-ordinators and headteachers communicate the strategy to their staff. "It looks a lot of work," mutters Catherine.

Inside the box are six coloured wallets: a fat orange one labelled Word Level (phonics and spelling); a blue one for Sentence Level (grammar and punctuation); green for Shared Reading and Writing at key stage 1 and red for key stage 2; purple for Information-Reading Skills; and a slim grey one labelled The Literacy Hour, covering general teaching strategies.

There's also a black wallet of video and audio tapes, which contains a guide to the box as a whole. As someone who waded through the contents for several days before getting round to this, I advise them to read it first. It suggests they allocate one in-service training day per wallet, taken as a full training day, two half days or a series of staff meetings.

As Pete and I set up the video tape for the Literacy Hour module, Catherine flicks through the trainer's manual and begins to relax. "It tells you exactly what to do," she says. "It even gives you the overhead projector transparencies. With the national curriculum you had masses of paper to wade through and then you had to make your own training materials."

We start the process: video clip, OHPs, timed discussion, more video clips showing the hour in action, with teachers teaching and talking about their experiences. Catherine, who is engrossed by the demonstration lessons, relaxes even more. "It's great to see it actually working - translated into what happens in a classroom. It's nowhere near as daunting as I thought, and the teaching methods look really good."

Pete is easing up too. "You mean, every school in England's getting one of these? Giving the information directly to the teachers, cutting out the middle men?" I point out that there are also masses of teaching tips for each element of the project, given on photocopiable sheets in the various wallets. These provide practical ideas to see teachers through until they've completed the in-service training, which will take several months.

"They'll be worried about classroom organisation, too," says Catherine. "Is there a list anywhere of the ideas we've seen on the video?" We find a booklet called Practical Suggestions for Organising Directed Independent Work, which can be photocopied for each member of staff.

"It's unbelievable," says Pete. "The Government has actually acted in a secretarial role. They've finally realised that teachers are busy people who haven't time to make all this stuff. And we can do this as a staff. We don't need anyone from outside, unless we choose to call them in for extra information."

"It's very comforting," says Catherine, "and rather unexpected when you're used to getting orders that are poor in quality or unrealistic. For years teachers have been working at frustration level, but this looks possible - and to see it actually working on the video is great. The staff will have something concrete to go on at last, instead of going round and round in circles."

I try to get them to listen to one of the audio-tapes, which give background on each module for the person leading the in-service training, but they're engrossed in planning how best to organise their own in-service days. "It really is about teaching," Pete says. "It'll actually raise morale."

I feel a warm glow at having been the lucky writer who introduced them to the box, and in two short hours watched a U-turn in the attitudes of one small corner of the teaching profession.

At this point I ought to admit that Pete Brinton is my husband. As we walked the dog that night, I asked him for an overall verdict on the National Literacy Strategy training box. "It's bloody marvellous," he answered, "Iand I never thought I'd say that."

To tell the truth, Dear Reader, I never thought I'd hear it.

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