Teachers' leaders have warned that any attempt to follow Ofsted's recommendation and raise literacy targets in primaries would be "utterly self-defeating" and cause "dismay" in schools.
Yesterday, Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw called on ministers to consider introducing a tougher English target at the end of primary school.
"Achieving the current benchmark at the end of primary school is no guarantee of success," he was expected to say as TES went to press. "Last year, 45 per cent of those pupils who just reached level 4c (the lower end of the level) at the age of 11 did not achieve a grade C in their GCSE English exams.
"So one of the first questions we need to ask is whether the national end- of-primary-school target of level 4 is sufficiently high to provide an adequate foundation for success at secondary school."
But Russell Hobby, who represents most primary heads as general secretary of the NAHT heads' union, said the current target was reasonable for an 11-year-old and added that if there was more work to be done, it should take place in secondaries.
"People will react with dismay to another attempt to move the goalposts," he said. "It is enough for primaries to work on getting every child to level 4.
"If you raise the bar again, I think a lot of people will say, `This is something you just can't achieve at our primary school.'"
And Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL education union, warned that an extra focus on targets would "detract from the broad and rich literacy curriculum that is needed to support learning at secondary school".
"Changing the target level would be entirely self-defeating," she said. "It would be highly likely to make the curriculum in primaries more constrained and narrow and less able to give children a broad and balanced experience of literacy across a range of subjects."
Sir Michael warned yesterday that national progress on literacy had stalled and that the country was being overtaken by other leading nations. "There can be no more important subject than English," he was expected to say. "It is at the heart of our culture, and literacy skills are crucial to pupils' learning for all subjects. Yet too many pupils fall behind in their literacy early on."
He noted that last year 100,000 pupils - one in five of the cohort - did not reach expected literacy levels at the end of primary school, rising to one in three disadvantaged pupils. One in seven adults - nearly 5 million people - lacked basic literacy skills.
Sir Michael also wants schools to report to parents on their child's reading age. He said he would prioritise inspections of schools with the lowest literacy standards and ensure that his inspectors hear pupils read.
Asked whether the primary English target should be raised to level 5, an Ofsted spokeswoman said it was not for the inspectorate to decide where it should be moved to.
The whole system of "levels" could be changed anyway, after the National Curriculum Review called in December for it to be replaced with more precise attainment targets.
Schools minister Nick Gibb indicated earlier this year that there might be some scope for toughening the targets, saying: "It has become abundantly clear that we need to think long and hard about whether the expected levels of reading we demanded in the past are still good enough."
This week, a Department for Education spokesperson said: "We want to raise standards in English as a matter of urgency and we are currently looking at this as part of our review of the national curriculum."
Moving English Forward, a report published this week by Ofsted, found that while English teaching was effective in many schools, standards were not high enough for all pupils. There had been only been limited improvement in primary pupils' learning since 2008.
The report found that:
too little attention was given to spelling and handwriting;
too few schools encouraged a love of reading;
learning was constrained when teachers concentrated too much or too early on a narrow range of test or examination skills;
transition arrangements between primaries and secondaries were too weak;
literacy teaching was sometimes hampered by "myths" about what made a good lesson, leading to excessive pace, overloading of activities, inflexible planning and limited time for pupils to work independently.
Original headline: Ofsted bids to toughen up primary literacy targets