THE new school year will be a decisive one for the Government's literacy strategy. In primary schools across the country, teachers will be putting the literacy hour into effect.
Schools, local authorities and the Government itself will be monitoring performance against the ambitious targets that have been set at every level and teacher-training institutions will be preparing prospective teachers by implementing the national curriculum for initial teacher training.
No process of radical change as ambitious as this could be easy to put into practice: it will challenge every one of us involved. But, unlike many other initiatives in the past decade, the National Literacy Strategy is carefully planned, fully funded and will be sustained, not just through this school year but well into the new century.
The training and support for schools has not simply been provided at the start and then withdrawn: it will be available for the next three years. An extra training day has been provided for primary schools next summer term when teachers will be able to review progress and learn the lessons both for the development of the literacy strategy and for the implementation of the numeracy strategy that is due to start this time next year.
Through a range of evaluations, and the Standards and Effectiveness Unit's regional directors, central government will be able to gain rapid feedback on how implementation is going and take this into account in planning for the future.
We were able, through these means, to find out how well last summer term's training for heads and literacy co-ordinators went. We know that the training provided was good in 80 to 90 per cent of cases. Where there were problems we were able to follow up rapidly.
What has been most impressive so far is that teachers and local authorities have risen with relish to the challenge of the literacy strategy.
Those that have already implemented the literacy hour are almost always enthusiasts for it. Those who are about to adopt it are, of course, anxious but will, I believe, discover its benefits more rapidly than they think.
The Government's literacy drive, however, goes much further than this. Creating a literate nation is not a task solely for primary teachers. We are developing proposals at secondary level to build on the work being taken forward at primary level. A group chaired by Sir Claus Moser is developing plans to address the literacy needs of the 8 per cent of the adult population who are illiterate and the 20 per cent who have literacy difficulties.
Through our homework guidelines and home-school contracts, parents will be encouraged to support their children's reading. Parents with literacy difficulties can join family literacy courses - which have been tremendously successful.
Above and beyond activity in the education service, the Government also recognises that literacy is the responsibility of the whole of society - business, the media, trades unions, arts and cultural organisations, religious bodies, voluntary organisationsI everybody.
That is why ambitious plans have been developed for the National Year of Reading, which will run throughout this academic year. Many, many people will be involved in it and everyone will be touched by it.
Although it will last just 12 months, we hope its effects will be lasting and that it will contribute to a society which values books and literature more highly and prizes literacy for what it is: the foundation not only of economic success but of democracy itself. As Thomas Jefferson said, more than 200 years ago, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and freeI it expects what never was and never will be".
As the literacy strategy enables primary teachers to play the leading part in creating a society which is literate and free, they will at last gain the recognition they deserve.