Meet the standards task force

7th June 1996 at 01:00
Linda Blackburne meets the tough duo who have been put in charge of 25 new literacy and numeracy centres . The two directors of the Government's 25 new literacy and numeracy centres are poised to take a rigorous approach to raising standards in primary schools. John Stannard and Anita Straker are described by colleagues as "tough". But the duo, who know each other from their days at the Inner London Education Authority, are also said to be independent-minded.

Mr Stannard will direct the network of 13 literacy centres, and Mrs Straker will be in charge of the 12 numeracy centres to open in September. The five-year, Pounds 12.5 million project aims to reach 2,000 schools. The 25 education authorities who were successful in their bids for centres were named by the Department for Education and Employment in March.

Mr Stannard, 55, a specialist English adviser in the Office for Standards in Education, has been seconded for two years. Mrs Straker, a 57-year-old mathematician and a deputy education director for the London borough of Camden, has been helping OFSTED develop its nursery education inspection programme. Both are former inspectors in ILEA, and Mrs Straker has also been an inspector in Berkshire, Wiltshire and Surrey. They each have four children.

Mr Stannard, a former senior lecturer in primary studies and an early years specialist at the Froebel Institute in west London, says it was as a father that he took an interest in child development.

A natural academic, he kept copious diaries about his children which he has often used in talks and lectures.

One colleague paints a formidable picture of him: "Most heads would have a high regard for his intellect but a lot would be scared of him. He's tough, demanding and rigorous. Some heads would say over the top. Highly competent, but as hard as nails. Very amusing, cultured, but not a person to go into the jungle with."

Mrs Straker, said by some to be even tougher, has written numerous maths books and computer software programs and was awarded the OBE for services to education in 1990. So what does she think about numeracy standards in the nation's primary schools?

"We need to strive to do better," says Mrs Straker. "I would say that at any stage because complacency and children's education do not go together. No matter how good you are, you can always do it better. It is that thought I hope to get across to schools."

Mr Stannard is cautious in his remarks on the debate on literacy standards. "Standards in literacy in many schools are not high enough. That is the focus of the project."

When asked if he believes standards have fallen, he says: "The evidence is very unclear. It is hard to make comparisons, and there is a weight of evidence on both sides of the debate."

He does not call himself a hard-liner in the "real books versus phonics" debate. He believes children learn to decode the text through a wide range of strategies. They develop "cueing systems", drawing on their knowledge of language, letters, sounds and context.

"What schools have to do is to enable children to develop all these cueing systems of which phonics is an important part," he said.

He finds that phonics is generally taught systematically when a child starts school but that it is not systematically developed, so many never learn how to use it effectively.

He believes schools need as wide a range of "real books" in schools as possible, but a laissez-faire approach is "inappropriate and quite wrong".

Teaching should be detailed and specific to combat social disadvantage, he says, and it is important for children to enjoy the books they read.

The two directors will work together in a new national centre. They have begun consulting widely about what is needed. They have met representatives from the local authorities involved, who are all about to appoint full-time consultants to work with groups of schools from September.

These consultants will attend a five-day residential course, and will train two key primary teachers in each participating school for five days. This initial training programme will span a two-year period, during which each school will be entitled to eight days of school-based consultancy - but informal contacts are expected to continue.

The training programme will have two strands. The first, school management, will include auditing and raising standards, setting targets, planning progress, developing policy and parental involvement.

The second strand will be improving the quality of teaching, assessment and planning by individual class teachers.

Teachers will be helped to find ways to increase the amount of direct teaching they do with an emphasis on more instruction and demonstration, developing strategies for asking children questions and bringing about more effective discussions with children.

Mrs Straker says the numeracy training will cover the number system, oral work, mental calculations and solving problems. There will also be some work on measurement, data handling, and interpreting numerical information from graphs.

The detailed objectives of the literacy and numeracy centres have yet to be agreed, but they will include setting bench mark standards for each LEA involved. The 25 centres will only reach 2,000 schools, but the directors hope the initiative will spread good practice.

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