If Britain is a nation of shopkeepers, it's a wonder we're still in business. International studies show our children languishing behind their European counterparts in core skills such as reading and maths, prompting a flurry of concern and activity across the British political spectrum.
One year ago Labour education frontman David Blunkett established the Literacy Task Force to develop strategies to drag Britain back up the literacy ladder. In February its consultation document, A Reading Revolution, outlined proposals for a Labour government to ensure all 11-year-olds reached their proper reading levels by 2006: last summer only 54 per cent achieved level 4 in the national curriculum tests. These proposals will be developed into a national strategy on literacy which is expected to be announced in July.
The task force report takes a "zero tolerance to failure" approach, highlighting the disparity in performance on literacy skills between schools of similar intake. Drawing on experience and research from New Zealand, Australia and the United States, it endorses the literacy hour piloted by the Conservative-initiated National Literacy Project in almost 300 UK schools.
With its term-by-term teaching objectives, the hour delivers more focused literacy teaching by whole-class and group instruction, with particular emphasis on phonics. A number of other measures underpin it, including summer schools for those requiring supplementary tuition, literacy targets for schools, double the time on literacy skills in teacher training, retraining of existing primary teachers, and a national year of reading to involve parents and the public.
With the consultation period extended to May, the responses to A Reading Revolution have yet to surface. Yet the heart of the this broadly welcomed report, the literacy hour, has already caused considerable controversy, with the Government encouraging more schools to adopt it before publication of the new curriculum in 2000.
Not surprisingl y, teaching leaders are less than eager to embrace what they see as an overprescriptive and additional burden to their workload. "The hour is solid, easy to follow and pretty uncompromising in terms of what to do - many primary teachers have never had that and will be grateful for the guidance," says Anne Barnes, general secretary of the National Association for the Teaching of English. She believes literacy teaching should be integrated into every aspect of the curriculum.
"But although it may be a help at the beginning, it could be too restrictive in the end, " she says. "There's a great danger it will stop teachers having to think about the individual needs of their pupils, and if you take the initiative away from teachers you'll have a greatly weakened education system."
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, agrees. "While all schools welcome guidance we mustn't be told in detail how to do our job. Schools are run by professionals who have views as to how children learn to read and write. It's wholly unacceptable for central government to prescribe exactly what teaching methods we should use."
He argues that most schools already teach an hour of literacy a day, but believes quantity does not necessarily equal quality. "We mustn't allow the Government to run away with the idea that an hour will necessarily do the trick. Some schools spend more, some less, but those that spend less quite often do better. It's a dangerous delusion to think that because something works well in one particular establishment it will work well in all. "
According to Sheila Dainton, assistant secretary at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the literacy hour could turn out to be a cheap gimmick. With the National Literacy Project established in schools only in January, there is as yet no clear evidence that it works, she argues. Worse still, it could damage the rest of the curriculum.
"There is a danger that key stage 1 will become massively overloaded and over-prescribed. If teachers feel they can loosen up on the other subjects it will have serious knock-on effects for key stage 2 and even key stage 3.The consequences of tampering with statutory requirements for other subjects could be very serious indeed. "
But for all the dissenters there are many enthusiasts who have broadly welcomed the literacy hour in their response to the paper. "It's the first time in my 25-year teaching history that I've seen a unified approach and agreement on good practice," says Dr Jeni Riley, head of primary education at the Institute of Education. "It's just about the most positive thing we've had for a long time. It enables teachers to teach reading in a structured, systematic and focused way, but they can still be as imaginative and flexible as they like. It just gives a framework to provide that teaching."
According to Dr Sue Horner, professional officer for English at the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, schools report spending a quarter of their time on literacy anyway, so an hour of intensive teaching should not be a problem. But she warns against creating a culture of dependency in teachers where they feel devalued and their confidence is low.
"The issue for schools is whether they have to change to the literacy hour if they are already a success. We need to keep it flexible. They should be able to pick out the things that enhance what they are already doing," she says.
Barbara MacGilchrist, dean of initial teacher education at the Institute of Education and advisor to the NLP, believes teachers should not react too hastily. "I say suck it and see. I can understand teachers saying this is too prescripti ve, but in my experience those who have seen what's proposed warm to it, " she says. "The national curriculum never delivered a detailed scheme of work to underpin its very general statements about literacy. This is a terrific year-on-year framework of what's expected for the majority of children."
But she is less pleased with the report's lack of commitment to the Reading Recovery programme, which she helped set up and funding for which was withdrawn under