Language of progress
What first strikes the visitor to the Centre for Language in Primary Education is the quiet. This is the quiet of concentrated study, not a stone's throw from the noise and bustle of London's Waterloo Station. In one room, a group of teachers are participating in a one-day course on "talking and listening". In another, a dozen more are discussing the development of a writing scale to help assess the writing of nine-to-12-year-olds. Between the teaching rooms lies the centre's pride and joy, an airy, high-ceilinged library with an outstanding collection of children's books.
Designed in the 1900s for the schooling of handicapped girls, this one-storey building - very cold in winter, according to staff - later became a centre for special needs teachers, and in 1989, home to the Centre for Language in Primary Education. The CLPE itself had started life in the early 1970s.
It was set up under the aegis of the Inner London Education Authority, but when ILEA was abolished in 1990, with other curriculum centres falling by the wayside, the London Borough of Southwark agreed to keep on the CLPE. Now self-supporting, the centre divides its time between consultancy work, educational research, in-house publishing and running a multitude of courses.
Myra Barrs, a former teacher and adviser, became director of the centre in 1985, and oversaw the CLPE's important work on the development of the Primary Language Record, which provided one of the first comprehensive frameworks for documenting children's progress in literacy from age three to 11. Piloted in 50 schools, the Primary Language Record drew on the contribution parents could make, at a time when such action was relatively uncommon. It has been widely influential in the UK as well as in New York and California.
Since then, the nature of the centre's work has changed. Development projects on the scale of the Primary Language Record have become increasingly difficult to carry out since the demise of ILEA, says Ms Barrs. It is no longer possible, financially, to use the Education Television Unit to make videos for in-service training, and many of the centre's longer courses have given way to one or two-day sessions.
Ms Barrs says: "In many ways, what seems luxurious provision - such as the long-term in-service - is no longer there. We have had to respond to a changing situation. In today's educational market, we are a provider among other providers - and we could probably do with a bit more self-marketing.
"We have more one-off contact with schools than in the past, rather than longer-term relationships. This may be less satisfying for us professionally - but it's what people want."
Four London boroughs still subscribe to the centre, as well as more than 100 schools (entitling them to a discount on courses, publications and so on). Another 300 to 400 schools are in regular contact. The annual course Raising Reading Standards, for language co-ordinators (10 days over two terms), is always oversubscribed, and a new, 14-day course for classroom assistants is part of a wider national project being evaluated by Her Majesty's Inspectorate.
In this changing climate, the centre's relationship with Southwark is important - "it means we're grounded in the area," says Myra Barrs - responsible for a growing proportion of its work.
Within Southwark, the CLPE is engaged in an urban regeneration project, funded from the Government's Single Regeneration Budget. Some 20 schools in Peckham are involved, with the centre helping to monitor the scheme and providing literacy support. It is also directing a Grants for Education Support and Training (GEST) project for the borough, helping mainstream teachers to cater for bilingual pupils.
Publishing is increasingly important, with the production of several new titles for teachers each year. The Primary Language Record handbook has sold more than 100,000 copies since it was first published in 1988. The Reading Book, edited by Ms Barrs and Anne Thomas (more than 15,000 copies since 1991), is a useful guide to the four major partners in the reading process, child, parent, teacher and text. Other publications cover shared reading, poetry in the classroom and the differences between boys and girls as readers.
Next week The Core Book is published, a structured approach to using books within the reading curriculum, written and edited by Sue Ellis and Ms Barrs; and its companion, The Core Book List. The latter is not a prescribed reading list, but a set of carefully chosen, good-quality books for teachers to draw on, where language and pictures are strong and interesting enough for children to want to return to them again and again.
Divided into age-related sections, The Core Book List comprises a learning-to-read collection (including, for five-to-six-year-olds, favourites such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, Not Now, Bernard by David McKee and Rosie's Walk by Pat Hutchins), as well as a literature collection (including traditional and contemporary children's "classics", such as, for age five to six, Michael Foreman's World of Fairy Tales and Joan Aiken's A Necklace of Raindrops. There is also a shorter section of information books for each age group, although the authors say it has proved "particularly difficult to find information books written in a way which takes account of the needs of beginning readers".
One of the aims of The Core Book List, Ms Barrs explains, is to provide teachers with a list of good quality books in print - something that has become relatively scarce - which will be regularly updated. The accompanying handbook outlines the importance of such texts in developing children's reading, books that can be revisited and in some cases memorised, and around which other activities can be planned.
"Books themselves will not teach children to read," stresses Ms Barrs, but to get children excited about reading from an early age, teachers need a range of the best books available. Some schools, she acknowledges, may use "core books" alongside a reading scheme, "but the argument for using books with language closer to natural language is that they contain more cueing systems for beginning readers".
These cueing systems may be semantic, syntactic, graphic or phonic, all of which children would come across in a "core book". The emphasis on phonics as a reading tool is, then, rather less explicit than in the National Literacy Project - whose Southwark consultants now occupy the same building as the CLPE. But Ms Barrs is anxious to play down the differences between the two approaches. "We're very friendly, and interested in what each other is doing," she says.
Southwark's Reading Recovery project is also based at the centre, making it something of a literacy power house.
"We're not on some band-wagon here," says Ms Barrs. "We try to respond to teachers wherever they are coming from. What I like about working here is trying to promote and support good educational practice. There is a general sense that education has to be an ever-improving system, and if we can contribute to that, it is very satisfying."
The Core Book: a Structured Approach to Using Books within the Reading Curriculum, Pounds 11. The Core Book List, Pounds 4.50. From The Centre for Language in Education, Webber Street, London SE1 8QW. Tel: 0171 401 3382.