Writes and wrongs

3rd August 2007 at 01:00
Do these key reform players tell it straight, asks Sue Palmer

The Literacy Game: the story of the National. Literacy Strategy. By John Stannard and Laura Huxford Routledge pound;18.99

It's difficult now to remember how exciting it was. Even people like me initially opposed to the National Literacy Strategy, launched in 1998 were soon carried along by the strategists' optimism and the teachers' enthusiasm.

As John Stannard and Laura Huxford recall, this was the most ambitious educational reform programme in the world. It fired a weary profession and, for a while, made us feel universal literacy was within our grasp.

As former director and director of training for the Literacy Strategy respect- ively, the authors are well qualified to record why action was necessary, and the NLS's early success in transforming teaching and raising standards. I was disappointed, however, at the scant attention paid to the literacy consultants who introduced the NLS to schools, and teachers who made it work in classrooms. The book focuses on a political dream of "system change" rather than people. Yet it's people who make systems work.

However, political conviction was crucial. This included former education ministers David Blunkett and Estelle Morris, Michael Barber, the chief adviser to the Secretary of State for Education on school standards, 1992-2001, and John Stannard.

By the end of 2002 they had gone, and with them the NLS's political power base. This is when the results of system change, as recounted, may diverge from those of readers at the chalkface.

Were improving SAT results evidence of continued success... or of teachers' increasing skill at teaching to the test? Was the Primary Strategy's mission to "devolve the initiative to schools" genuine... or window dressing from an organisation unable to relinquish control?

As an insiders' account, the book clears up some of the folklore surrounding the literacy hour, the phonics debate and the now notorious "searchlights" metaphor for reading. But while it promises to explain "what did and did not work in the NLS and why", it ignores the mass of theoretical criticism and research evidence from outside observers. It thus tells only half the story the authorised versio*

Sue Palmer is an independent literacy specialist who worked for the NLS, 1999 2001

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