Opinion: Book your ticket to a literate future

10th October 1997 at 01:00
The Government's literacy strategy is the most ambitious programme to raise standards ever advanced in this country. The target, announced in May, is that 80 per cent of all 11-year-olds should achieve level 4 in English by 2002. Schools will soon receive a booklet setting out what the strategy will mean for them.

Every aspect of the plan has been the subject of careful consultation with primary teachers and their national representatives. There is immense enthusiasm for clear priorities sustained over time, for the carefully prepared steps in the strategy and for the investment to support it.

Even so, and understandably, there is a degree of scepticism. Teachers have heard the ambitious rhetoric before and, though they want to, they won't believe it this time until they see it. There are five sceptical observations I hear on my visits to primary schools. I want to try and answer each of them.

* "It's all very well talking about priorities but unless you put some money into it, you can't expect us to take it seriously."

Absolutely right. That's why David Blunkett announced last week that #163;50 million would be invested next year in teachers' professional development and reading books for schools, with more to come in the years that follow. That's why the Government has already embarked on reducing class sizes at key stage 1. And that's why it has promised nursery education for every four-year-old. The money will be there.

* "It's all right in theory but remember we have a highly prescriptive 10-subject curriculum and something will have to go."

Agreed. There is a problem here. Some schools are already pioneering the way forward and we need to learn from them. No one - least of all primary teachers - wants the same sort of chaotic revisions of the national curriculum that we saw in the early 1990s. Nevertheless, we all want literacy and numeracy to get the priority they deserve. The Government is actively pursuing this question with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and OFSTED and will issue advice in due course.

* "We all want to improve literacy but your plans are far too prescriptive. Everyone knows there is more than one way to teach reading."

It's true: there are lots of ways to teach reading. But they are not all equally good. Our approach to the teaching of literacy is based on careful study of the research worldwide. Success really is more likely for more pupils when there is dedicated time for literacy, systematic teaching of phonics as well as other skills, and careful ongoing assessment of pupils' progress.

We believe that every primary teacher is entitled to know, understand and be able to use the best methods of teaching reading.

In any case, the approach we are putting forward will not be prescribed for every school. Where a school can demonstrate - in terms of pupil performance - that it has an approach as good or better than the national model, it will be entitled to continue to use it.

Even in those schools, however, we expect the training programme to be delivered. We want teachers to share a common language in which to discuss literacy.

* "You seem to think literacy is just a matter of what teachers do. But, unless everyone else takes literacy seriously, teachers will always face an uphill struggle."

Teachers do have the prime responsibility for teaching children to read. The evidence shows again and again that they can and do make a difference.

Nevertheless, the point is an important one. The National Year of Reading,which will start in September 1998, is designed to meet this concern. We intend to work with the media and business and educators to change public and parental attitudes to literacy. Companies spend millions changing our attitudes to toothpaste, beer and shampoo. Why shouldn't we do the same with literacy?

Many companies - WH Smith, Random House, Macmillans, Walkers Snack Foods - are already committed to supporting the National Year of Reading. The BBC is preparing ambitious plans to back it. Mersey TV, which makes Brookside, has agreed to write literacy into the plot. The only way to avoid the National Year of Reading will be to leave the country!

* "That's all very well but in the end, unless you capture the hearts and minds of primary teachers and headteachers, you'll be whistling in the wind."

Agreed. That's why we sent the consultation document on the literacy strategy to every primary school before the election. That's why we were delighted by the enthusiastic response. That's why I rang up the few critics of the first plan to see if I could learn more from their criticism.

And as a result, we changed our plans. There was a strong feeling that those primary schools which, for whatever reason, had furthest to go to meet the target ought to get additional support over and above the entitlement for every school. Under the final plans, they will.

Under the original plans, schools would have been required to use five training days over four terms to implement the strategy. Heads said that was too many. The final plan requires only three over the same period.

Progress towards the national literacy and numeracy targets - year on year - will build the relationship between teachers and government. It will provide opportunities to celebrate success.

If we do hit the targets - as I believe we will - not only will we have transformed the life chances of millions of children and enhanced the country's prospects; we will also have transformed public attitudes to primary education. Teachers will finally get the status and recognition they deserve.

The literacy strategy provides us all with an opportunity too good to miss. Nobody ever said that travelling the road ahead was easy, but it'll be far better than staying where we are.

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