The man who reads between battle lines;Briefing;People;Interview;John Stannard

29th January 1999 at 00:00
John Stannard has written the definitive guide to the teaching of reading - but is it the last word? Geraldine Hackett met him

There is a touch of the evangelist about John Stannard that may be partly due to the scale of the task he has taken on. As director of the National Literacy Strategy, he is a key figure in ensuring the Government keeps its promise to improve children's reading and writing.

He was approached to take on the job when it became clear that he was better qualified than any of the original applicants. When the National Literacy Centre was being created in the autumn of 1996, Mr Stannard had spent 10 years as the senior English adviser with HMinspectorate.

There are few individuals more steeped in the world of teaching children to read, which is not a gentle place. The territorial wars over teaching methods and, in particular, the role of phonics, are complicated and vicious.

The decision to commend a literacy hour to schools - it is not statutory - has not met with universal acclaim within the profession. The literacy materials for schools set out not only the structure of the hour, but the content of lessons and the grouping of children. (It is even suggested that teachers put a sign outside the door when the hour begins.) The literacy experiment is the first attempt to impose such a structure on schools from the centre and means that central government can gather intelligence on the effectiveness of schools and their local authorities from a network of regional directors.

There is no apology from Mr Stannard about the level of prescription. He takes the pragmatic view that enough is known about the most effective ways to teach reading that schools should now be putting them into practice.

Most of his long career (he is 58) has been spent in primary education and he has undergone his own conversion to a structured approach to literacy. Mr Stannard taught in primary schools, has lectured on primary education and was an inspectoradviser in the now defunct Inner London Education Authority.

He was lecturing at the Froebel Institute, then the most prestigious institution in primary education, during the excitement encapsulated and stirred by the 1967 Plowden report that emphasised the child-centred approach embraced by many schools in the 1970s and 1980s.

"The model for the teaching of reading has become more sophisticated. Fifteen to 20 years ago, teaching was constructed in a way that put the emphasis on guessing and predicting text. The evidence is increasingly irresistible that there should be systematic learning of phonics, though that is not all there is to the teaching of literacy," he says.

In the aftermath of Plowden, there was also an ideology adopted by some teachers that reading was to be taught when children appeared to demonstrate that they had reached that stage.

Mr Stannard now believes it is a mistake to limit judgments about what children can do on the basis of what has previously been achieved.

Although an immensely courteous man, his critics claim that he is inclined to be intolerant of people who are not prepared to follow the literacy strategy. His reasoning is that unless schools and teachers try it, they will not know what they are missing.

There is a political imperative to raise standards in primary literacy. David Blunkett has staked his future on 80 per cent of the 2002 class of 11-year-olds being able to read fairly fluently (level 4 in the national curriculum tests).

However, Mr Stannard does not seem to be driven by such considerations, but by a belief that a systematic focus on reading by teachers will bring results - the pilot project suggests he is right.

The politics of it all are clearly perceived as a distraction by Mr Stannard. One of the crosses he bears is the close interest in the teaching of reading, particularly phonics, taken by chief inspector Chris Woodhead. To what extent Mr Woodhead makes his influence felt is unknown, but he is thought to be sceptical of the value of group work and to feel that its inclusion in the literacy hour shows his back-seat driving was not as effective as it should have been.

Among his peers, Mr Stannard is valued for his strategic thinking and liked for his modesty. On the videos that accompany the National Literacy Strategy training pack, he sounds authoritative. He now appears much more comfortable on public platforms than when he first took the job.

During the time he was writing the materials, there was no shortage of schools to test out its effectiveness. Mr Stannard is married to a primary school head and he has many friends in the sector. The last of his four children is in the sixth-form.

The director's job involves a great deal of travelling. The main office for both literacy and numeracy is in Reading and he has a desk in the standards and effectiveness unit at the Department for Education and Employment. The nature of the job means he can only ever be contacted on his mobile.

He was appointed - on permanent loan from his previous employer, the Office for Standards in Education - by the last Government. John Major had become convinced that direct action was needed to tackle literacy and numeracy. But even he can have had no inkling that the centres would come to play such a crucial role in improving teaching of the basics. In essence, Mr Stannard is very much what might be expected of a traditional HM inspector of schools. In HMI-speak, the task has been identified and the strategy is being put in place to achieve the desirable outcome.

For all his lack of public profile, if the literacy strategy results in significant improvement in standards, no other single person will be able to claim as much credit as Mr Stannard.

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