Our education system will never be world class unless virtually all children learn to read, write and calculate to high standards before they leave primary school. At the time of the 1997 election the national data showed how far we were from achieving this goal. Only just over half of 11-year olds were meeting the standards set for their age in literacy and numeracy.
During 1996-97 Labour in Opposition developed a national strategy to tackle this dire state of affairs. Within a few days of the election therefore the new Government was able to set ambitious national targets for the year 2002: that in literacy 80 per cent and numeracy 75 per cent of 11-year-olds should meet the standards set for their age. These targets are staging posts on the way to even higher levels of performance.
Our assumption, based on a review of the international research, is that about 80 per cent of children will achieve those standards as a result of being taught well by teachers who know, understand and are able to use proven best practice. The others will, from time to time, need extra small group tuition or on-to-one support, preferably before the age of eight. For a very small percentage we do not yet have the knowledge or the capacity to enable them to meet the standards but, for sure, we won't give up trying.
To achieve these ambitious objectives we have progressively put in place what the leading Canadian educator, Michael Fullan, has called the most ambitious, comprehensive and aligned national strategies anywhere in the world.
The impact of the strategies is evident in the national test results over the past three years. (See graphs, left) The progress so far is only the beginning. Our intention is to pursue the strategies consistently, to refine them constantly and to invest in professional development for primary teachers through to 2004 at least. Each year the professional development programme will be based on analysis of what pupils and teachers have (and have not) been able to do well the previous year. Precision-targeting of professional development across a system is, I believe, one of our most important strategy innovations, ensuring both quality and cost-effectiveness.