The view from the top;Briefing

26th June 1998 at 01:00
Government standards supremo Michael Barber sees higher reading levels ahead.

The next two terms are of central importance to the Government's literacy strategy. The literacy framework was distributed to all primary schools before Easter and the distance learning training pack in May. Before the end of this term, every primary head, every primary teacher responsible for literacy and a governor from every school will have attended a two-day training conference on the management of literacy.

Next year, drawing on the two-day conferences and the training materials, each school - with the support of education authority literacy consultants - will train their staff and implement the literacy hour. Schools in most need will receive extra support and help from the consultants. Here in the Standards and Effectiveness Unit, we are constantly in touch with schools: our staff visit them regularly; we have a senior adviser who, until Easter, was a primary head; we receive a stream of correspondence and phone calls; and we attend conferences. Our ten regional literacy directors have a brief to pick up the messages coming from schools and authorities and feed them back promptly to us.

The feedback on the strategy so far is overwhelming positive.

Teachers have commented on the value of having a clear sense of direction and a Government that backs its rhetoric with high quality support and investment. They have welcomed the fact that the materials are based on the work of the excellent practitioners who produced them. They value their thoroughness, which means that each head or teacher - for once - does not have to reinvent his or her own wheel. Above all, after ten years of being criticised for not teaching literacy well, they welcome a Government that is prepared to work with them to ensure that the successful practice of some is made universally available to all.

Inevitably, not all the feedback is praise. The strategy demands a huge shift of culture and practice in some schools. While those who have piloted and implemented the literacy strategy are consistently enthusiastic - many have described it to me as the best development in their professional careers - those who have yet to make the change have doubts and anxieties.

The literacy consultants in your area and our regional directors are there to help. They can offer advice on any aspect of the strategy. Also, because every aspect is entirely based on practice, they can put you in touch with a teacher or head who has faced the same problem and solved it.

The most common question I get asked is whether implementing the framework is compulsory. It's not statutory, but my response is that the key to the strategy is that it offers primary teachers an entitlement to know, understand and be able to use best practice in the teaching of literacy. All schools should certainly take up this entitlement and participate in the training that will provide everyone with a shared language through which to discuss literacy and with a shared set of skills.

Once all teachers have that knowledge and capacity, they will surely choose to apply it in their classrooms. Not to do so would defy common sense, unless they have evidence that another approach would work as well or better.

Schools whose performance is already excellent - taking account of their intake - will still want to review their practice in the light of the literacy strategy. They are, in any case, likely to find they are using methods similar to those on which the training is based. They may be able, after all, to do better still.

We will carefully monitor the implementation of the strategy - and learn from the experience of schools. Those to whom the literacy hour is new are likely to find that it takes some weeks for it to be working smoothly. They can seek assistance at any time.

There are many questions. What about mixed-age classes? How about children with special needs? What is the best way of using support staff? And so on. The training materials contain answers to many questions. If you want answers or further advice - or if you simply want to comment - your authority's literacy consultants or our regional directors will be happy to help. We are all in this together and together we will make it work.

Michael Barber is head of the Department For Education and Employment's Standards and Effectiveness Unit.

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