The unofficial general election campaign stepped up a gear this week, with the three main parties revealing how they plan to raise educational performance beyond the millennium - and how this will be funded, report TES writers.
Television commercials will tell parents to spend time reading with their children, teachers will be re-trained, and a national year of literacy will be declared under the Labour party's detailed new plan for lifting reading standards.
It promises to end the "lottery" which determines whether or not a child is taught to read successfully.
Every pupil entering secondary school will have reached his or her proper reading level by 2006, according to the party's Literacy Task Force, chaired by Professor Michael Barber, of London University's Institute of Education.
The task force report, published this week, draws heavily on successful experience of improving overall standards in New Zealand along with parts of Australia and America. It seeks to expand the principles to Britain's four million primary school children.
The report concentrates on the disparity in performance between schools with similar pupil populations in the belief that the gap in achievement can be reduced with a mass campaign.
"The advertising industry can sell people all sorts of bizarre products, " said Professor Barber this week. "There is no reason at all why it cannot persuade people to spend time doing something they actually enjoy, like hearing their children read."
Using figures released by the Department for Education and Employment based on the 1995 national test results, the report suggests that there is an "unacceptable" gap in educational achievement irrespective of wealth or poverty. "Whether children learn to read well is a lottery in both advantaged and disadvantaged areas," says the task force.
Even in the most disadvantaged schools, where more than 40 per cent of the children are given free school meals, there is a range from 70 per cent to zero of pupils achieving the national curriculum target.
The report marks a turn in the direction of consensus and notably avoids attacking the Government. "There is nothing to be gained from a new government coming in and overturning good work which is already in progress," it says.
But the Labour party's conversion to the "zero tolerance of failure" approach to educational improvement has been condemned as "silly" by leading educational statisticians. They say Labour is turning its back on complex analysis of school effect in favour of crude statistics and publicity.
"What they're proposing is league tables - more of them than we have at the moment," said Harvey Goldstein, professor of statistical methods at the institute.
Only 57 per cent of 11-year-olds reached level 4 in English in last summer's national curriculum tests and the cost to the economy of illiteracy is more than Pounds 10 billion a year.
The task force report is thick with recommendations. It calls for:
* National guidelines on how to teach, based on OFSTED findings, international research and work by the government's National Literacy Project;
* Targets for schools and individual pupils;
* One hour of literacy teaching every day in primary schools;
* Doubling the amount of time spent on the teaching of reading in teacher-training courses;
* Re-training all serving primary teachers with distance learning materials and four days out of school;
* Monitoring progress with special inspections covering 10 per cent of primary schools.
* Changing the national curriculum to focus on the 3 "Rs" and give teachers more discretion outside the core;
* National guidelines recommending that all parents read with their primary-aged children for 20 minutes a day and meet their teacher every six months;
* A national year of reading to be declared, with mass advertising;
* A literacy strategy group will be set up at the DFEE;
* Local education authorities to appoint literacy consultants, following the example of the National Literacy Project.
As a result of these measures, says Labour:
* Four-fifths of 11-year-olds will have got to level 4 by 2000;
* All 11-year-olds will have reached level 4 in English by 2006; l Children with particular problems will be helped using schemes such as Reading Recovery, imported from New Zealand.
Welsh league tables, see page 8