'With this programme, the cavalry has arrived'
It has been more than two years in the making, but this week the Welsh government finally launched its long-awaited programme to "transform" standards in reading and maths.
The National Literacy Programme will tackle underperformance among five- to 14-year-olds, with reforms including yearly reading tests for all pupils (see panel, bottom right).
Teachers will be expected to improve pupils' literacy skills regardless of the subject, age group or sets they teach. Exceptional members of staff will be used as role models to help colleagues in their own and other schools, and there will be strong, targeted intervention for children who fall behind.
The programme has been in development since 2010, but had to be significantly reworked after the first draft was branded an "embarrassment" by a source involved in the process.
Some of the elements in the reworked version were announced by education minister Leighton Andrews last year following Wales's "disastrous" performance in the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests.
The overarching programme includes new literacy and numeracy frameworks. Details confirmed this week include changes to initial teacher training as well as a master's degree for teachers with a focus on literacy and numeracy skills.
Earlier this year, Estyn chief inspector Ann Keane's annual report said that literacy and numeracy skills were still a particular concern. Inspectors found underperformance at every key stage among a "significant minority" of pupils, and said that 40 per cent of pupils entered secondary schools with a reading age at least six months below their actual age.
Only this week, an Estyn report said that too few secondary schools use a skills framework introduced in 2008 to improve pupils' literacy and numeracy abilities in key stage 3, and that most prefer to stick to teaching the curriculum.
Under the new system, primary and secondary schools will be expected to ensure that literacy and numeracy teaching is embedded in all subjects and to monitor pupil progress against yearly expectations. Schools will be expected to report annually to parents, but results will not be published on a school-by-school basis.
The framework will be put out to consultation from June to October, and introduced in September 2013.
Professor David Reynolds, a senior policy adviser to the Welsh government, said that the programme had drawn on the international experience of countries that had tackled literacy standards among pupils.
"It's about pressure and support - the pressure from testing and the support from the guidance and resources," he said. "Teachers must accept we are not working with insoluble problems and there are strategies that work. But I hope they realise that with this programme the cavalry has arrived; after several years of pressure the support is now there."
Dr Philip Dixon, director of the ATL Cymru education union, said that keeping teachers onside would be the key priority for the government.
"It is important that there is effective promotion of these skills in a way teachers can get to grips with in the classroom. Teachers must be able to understand straight away what they have to do," he said. "We know literacy and numeracy skill levels are low. Anything overly bureaucratic doesn't work and won't improve the situation."
Leighton Andrews said that the expectations set out in the literacy and numeracy framework are "more stretching" than many of those currently in the curriculum in order to provide a more rigorous approach to raising standards. Nothing is more important than making sure pupils can read, write and communicate, he claimed.
"Learners who fall behind with their literacy skills will struggle to keep up with the rest of the curriculum and fulfil their potential," Mr Andrews said. "We will turn this situation around and deliver the improvements we need and the standards our learners deserve."
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The National Foundation for Educational Research was paid #163;2.37 million to develop a "bespoke suite" of reading tests for Wales.
The tests will be taken annually by each year group during a two-week window, with the first ones taking place in May 2013. They are designed as group tests that will last around 60 minutes, but teachers will have the flexibility to test in smaller groups or split them into chunks for younger pupils.
The government said it wants them to be a "true reflection" of abilities and not a test of how well children cope in exam conditions.