Great expectations for literate future

27th November 1998 at 00:00
WE'VE been gathering evidence all term of the impact of the literacy strategy in primary schools. We played that evidence back to the several hundred teachers who attended the TES-sponsored literacy conferences over the past three weeks. The message is very clear: it's got off to an excellent start. The vast majority of local authorities and schools are working hard to put it into practice.

Teachers are seeing the benefits. Most are asking "How?" questions rather than "Whether?" or "Why?" This is not to say that nobody has any problems. A major change of this kind is never without some problems but the balance sheet is extremely positive and the intensive support being provided to almost 20 per cent of schools is working exceptionally well.

Many teachers find the skills involved in a literacy hour help their teaching across the board. Expectations are being raised. The pace of teaching has increased and children are enjoying the literacy hour; its focus, discipline and sense of fun. Contrary to what some critics have said, the combination of the literacy strategy and the Government's major investment in books has offered pupils the opportunity to enjoy a wider range of texts - fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose.

Bethan Marshall, lecturer in education at King's College, London, who ludicrously claimed in a recent essay that "the pall of utilitarianism" hangs over schools, surely tells us more about her own prejudices. The strategy has never been about merely functional literacy. It is about enabling as many children as possible - many more than ever before - to have access to the wonders of the written word. The early evidence shows that we are already moving in that direction.

The feedback also reveals major challenges ahead. Those teachers who have not formerly had systematic training in teaching the crucial phonicword level work at key stage 1 will need further training to reinforce skills. Pupils in Years 3 and 4 who have not yet mastered reading need to strengthen their word-level skills so that they can catch up with their peers. There is a major challenge in Years 5 and 6 writing especially among the boys. As we plan investment in training for future years, these will be the priorities. A further 15 per cent of schools will become entitled to intensive support next year, taking the total involved to more than 30 per cent.

The main questions from teachers concern targets and flexibility. It is important for primary schools to set targets for 2000 and 2002. Schools should be "realistically ambitious" and this does involve a degree of risk. The Government accepts that individual school targets cannot be perfect, especially for those schools with small cohorts andor transient populations. Both of these are the reality for some schools and of course that is understood.

As for flexibility, common sense is essential and teachers should exercise professional judgment. But the key to the success of the strategy is that teachers master the skills involved in it. The basic premise, after all, is that this is an entitlement for every primary teacher to know, understand and be able to use proven best practice. Inevitably, acquiring these professional skills takes time. It is therefore vital that flexibility does not stretch to choosing not to learn or apply the more difficult skills at the heart of the programme.

Heads and teachers have worked very hard this term to implement the new programme. The planning has been extremely demanding. Ministers have repeatedly praised the commitment that teachers have shown to the literacy hour though inevitably this has rarely been reported. In the past teachers have sometimes worked hard to put an innovation into place only to find that the government changes its mind and the work is wasted. That will not be the case this time.

This term's efforts are laying the foundation for the future. They will bear fruit in pupil achievement. The Government's commitment to the literacy strategy will remain firm. It will learn from implementation as it goes on and continue - next year, the year after and beyond - to support teachers in ensuring that the next generation is the most literate ever.

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