Britannia flies the flag for better literacy;Opinion

9th April 1999 at 01:00
THE National Year of Reading has exceeded all expectations. I knew it had really made it when I bought a packet of Tetley teabags and discovered that, as a free gift, I had a book to read with my child. It's a good book too, although when I tried it out on my eldest daughter she was not all that impressed. Perhaps that was because she's 24.

The literacy pilot lines in Coronation Street and EastEnders have ensured literacy issues are put before a mass audience. Brookside has gone one better providing not only a major storyline but practical advice and help through the "Brookie Basics" scheme. Take-up has been tremendous. So far the helpline has received more than 8,200 calls.

Publishers, booksellers, libraries, schools and local authorities have driven the event at ground level where, though it gets less attention, it makes most difference. In Richmond even the dustcarts advertise it.

The Government has played its part too. Apart from establishing and co-ordinating the campaign, it has run television advertisements urging parents, especially fathers, to read with their children and, by putting more than pound;100 million into school books, has enabled the purchase of 23 million new books in the two years since the election.

But the greatest contribution of all has come from primary teachers themselves. The National Year of Reading is an integral part of the National Literacy Strategy which depends for its success on teachers. Their commitment to the literacy hour and the professional development that goes with it has been magnificent.

Of course there's more to be done and it's not by any means perfect. No one should expect that after such a short time. But those evaluating the strategy report that teachers are increasingly mastering the skills at the heart of the strategy; they welcome the clarity of the framework and find that pupils are responding well to the structure and expectations of the literacy hour. Early evidence suggests that pupils with English as an additional language are benefiting particularly.

The literacy strategy will continue not just through this year but right down to 2002 and beyond. The Government will continue to support primary teachers in every way in their efforts to raise literacy standards. It will continue to invest in professional development for every primary school. It will continue to give the greatest assistance to those teachers who face the greatest challenge. And it will take every opportunity to recognise and celebrate the achievements of primary teachers.

Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, asked recently whether the Government was wise to talk about the success of the strategy so early in its implementation.

This turns on what is meant by "success". Clearly it's too early to see the impact of the strategy on pupil performance, the ultimate test - and in that sense he is right to urge caution. On the other hand, surely it is right to monitor progress so far and to acknowledge the hugely positive response of primary teachers.

With a long-term strategy like this, it inevitably takes time before the impact on pupil performance comes through but we can surely celebrate what has been achieved. To use an American phrase "the vital signs" so far are good.

This country's literacy drive is being followed with great interest across the world. More than 20 countries have made direct enquiries about the National Year of Reading, including Hong Kong, Australia and Hungary. The Literacy Strategy itself including the framework, the literacy hour and the approach to professional development are generating interest worldwide.

The literacy programme in Victoria, Australia, for example, influenced the strategy here from the outset. Now they are learning from us. I don't know if it's any comfort to a hard-pressed primary teacher on a wet Monday, but it's worth remarking nevertheless that education reform is becoming global; the focus on literacy is almost universal and teachers here are leading the way.

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