Is David Blunkett's target of ensuring that 80 per cent of 11-year-olds reach national curriculum level 4 in English, and 75 per cent in maths, realistic? Or is David Hart's wet blanket on behalf of the National Association of Head Teachers a matter of simple common sense?
Time will tell, but in the meantime an answer can come only from analysis of who is reaching level 4 and who is not, and from an assessment of the chances of improving their performance.
In literacy, one positive indicator is that most pupils not at level 4 - 35 per cent of boys and 25 per cent of girls - are at level 3.
In 1996, 65 per cent of girls and 50 per cent of boys reached level 4 in English (for maths, the figure was 54 per cent for both sexes). Among seven-year-olds, 26 per cent of boys were at or below level 1 in reading, and 30 per cent in writing - the respective figures for girls were 16 per cent and 17 per cent.
These margins are crucial to the target. It seems that the teaching of English is at present more effective for girls, and, as girls have made up any previous gap in maths, that teaching overall needs to be made more effective for boys.
The recent Secondary Heads Association publication Can Boys Do Better? should spark a similar primary initiative from the NAHT, and we need speedy research from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority to discover how far the problems at 11 are related to writing and how far to reading. We also need to know soon how far the National Literacy Project is enabling boys to improve. Research in progress further suggests that gender differences in language use and development begin early. This needs to be considered in nursery provision and in enhancing the educational role of health visitors.
Labour's target allows for pupils who have special educational needs: the Warnock Committee's guesstimate of a fifth with a special need at some time in their school career should not rule out national expectations for all of these pupils at 11. However, Labour's Literacy Task Force is right to include children who have English as an additional language in the overall target. Most are now wholly educated in British schools, and their progress is hindered both by the continued use of a separate language development scale developed in the late seventies, and by a division of funds between the Home Office and the Department for Education and Employment. David Blunkett needs Jack Straw's co-operation to bring all additional funds under DFEE control.
At present, effective schools with large proportions of ethnic minority pupils are getting just over half of their pupils to level 4. If these schools can be helped to improve further, and others brought up to their standard, the inclusion of ethnic minority pupils need not jeopardise the overall target.
The biggest hurdle, however, remains improving the attainment of six out of seven of the boys currently at level 3. This really is a tough target. It implies a major cultural change and a much more intensive approach to all aspects of the national curriculum, including much more attention to detail from pupils. Among the girls, two-thirds of those currently at level 3 will have to improve to level 4. This will take careful teaching, focused on extending their skills and understanding, rather than on consolidati on. The task is no less difficult for being smaller in scale.
So, can it be done? I think so, just. But it will take from all of us the same commitment to working for literacy as our first priority that David Blunkett has shown himself.
John Bald's new book, The Literacy File, costs #163;24.95 from J Bald, literacy and language specialist, 7 Symonds Lane, Linton, Cambs CB1 6HY.