Jeremy Sutcliffe reports on the Pounds 25m scheme to improve primary literacy and numeracy
Senior government advisers are believed to be unhappy with the Education and Employment Secretary's plans to open a national network of centres to tackle poor standards of literacy and numeracy.
Disquiet about the Pounds 25 million project, announced by Gillian Shephard in her speech to the North of England conference in Gateshead, is understood to be widespread within government agencies and local authority circles. They are believed to think the work that would be undertaken by the centres could best be done within schools through in-service training.
One senior source said: "The idea that you set up these teachers' centres on a one-off basis is the sort of thing local education authorities were doing in the 1960s and 1970s.
"It's an out-of-date concept. It smacks of alcoholism and dependancy centres - people are only sent there when they have problems."
Evidence of discontent among some of Mrs Shephard's top advisers is likely to be seized on by teachers' leaders, who have given a cool reception to the plan.
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, warned the scheme could result in little more than a chain of remedial centres. He said: "The reality that needs to be addressed is that too many children are being taught in classes of 35 and 40."
In her speech, Mrs Shephard emphasised that the Office for Standards in Education would take the lead in establishing a "national agenda" for the centres, backed by the Teacher Training Agency, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the Basic Skills Agency.
The purpose, she said, would be to tackle the 20 per cent of primary lessons identified by inspectors as "unsatisfactory" and to improve the teaching of basic skills.
She said the centres would promote proven teaching skills but would not concentrate solely on any one method. But she made clear her preference: "What we want is children reading. The use of discovery methods has held too many children back for too long."
The project will establish 20 centres. Ten will concentrate on literacy and 10 on numeracy. Local education authorities will be invited to bid to run them.
Mrs Shephard told the conference that OFSTED would be asked to produce "hard evidence about what really works in schools", drawing on research from other government agencies, LEAs and university departments.
A national centre will co-ordinate the project and train staff. Each local centre will employ full-time consultants to work with groups of around 20 schools a year. They will help them identify "baseline" levels of achievement and set targets for improvement.
Each school will be helped to produce action plans, with the emphasis on staff training. "Good teaching will be the key to success. Good teachers know their subject. Good teachers have high expectations. And - crucially - good teachers spend all their time teaching, not waiting for pupils to learn. This project will apply those basic lessons to the teaching of the basic skills," Mrs Shephard said.
"We know it is possible for schools to make measurable improvements in a short time - if they keep their sights firmly fixed on what they want to achieve. This project will make a real difference where it matters," she said.
By the end of the five-year programme 2,000 - or one in 10 - primary schools will have worked with the centres. It is unclear how schools will be chosen or whether priority will be given to those that are underperforming or are in disadvantaged areas.
The initiative is part of a wider Government strategy to improve basic education, which includes developing core skills in literacy, numeracy, information technology and communication for 16 to 19-year-olds. There are also plans to improve the basic skills of unemployed people, to be piloted by the training and enterprise councils later this year.
David Blunkett, Labour's education and employment spokesman, said the scheme had been launched by a Government that last year had withdrawn its support for the Pounds 14 million-a-year Reading Recovery scheme which, he said, had successfully helped pupils with poor literacy.
While the centres were welcome they were only costing Pounds 5m a year - a third of the funding for the axed Reading Recovery programme.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the centres would benefit only a fraction of schools. They did not go far enough or fast enough, he said.