Transform your target for 2000

Tim Brighouse reveals that Birmingham has set itself ambitious aims in literacy and maths for the Millennium and beyond. This week, Birmingham primary schools' Millennium reading and numeracy targets are published for the present Year 3 pupils who will take their curriculum tests in 2000. As the table shows, they are breathtakingly ambitious.

It is worth emphasising that, unlike national education targets, or even those of the Literacy Task Force last week, these are the schools' own. We have no doubt that the targets will be realised, not least because of our teachers' skill, commitment and energy.

The targets are rooted in their determination to increase the amount of time spent in "the zone of proximal development", as child psychologist Lev Vygotski would say. In parents' language, this means stretching the mind of trusting pupils into understanding or doing things they thought beyond them, while diminishing the time spent in other activities.

In particular, the targets fix on the outcome of a renewed focus in key stage 2 in accelerated learning between the first year and top juniors.

There is a tide to be caught in late childhood. The foundations are laid in the vital years up to five by soaking children in music, rhythm, movement, in language and social development, culminating in a nursery experience.

Then our early years practitioners show what can be done to enable children to reach base camp one in terms of reading and numeracy. Teachers have never known more about how children learn to read.

What we need to share more widely - and it is a challenge for literacy and numeracy centres around the country - is the expertise, techniques and key interventions which have the best chance of extending those initial competencies.

Put simply, too many infants at level 2 do not reach level 4 four years later. We have to encourage these youngsters from base camp one up the mountainside towards advanced reading habits. We especially have to help many of the less confident and competent pupils. Roughly equating to level 4 and level 5, certificates are being produced by the city as celebratory awards which outline the habits of experienced and established young readers and mathematicians.

The panel (right) illustrates the back of the certificate, which describes the established reader and the activity we shall ask parents and carers to encourage as they celebrate their children's successful crossing of the threshold towards the secondary curriculum.

We have reached this point of development as a result of some key decisions to support schools and teachers. First, and most importantly, city politicians, despite facing cuts elsewhere, have provided for four years stable funding for schools in real terms - even a marginal improvement.

Second, we have applied the lessons of school improvement vigorously, systematically and sensitively: we have, for example, allowed schools to come on board at their own pace, so that now over 90 per cent are using baseline assessment and a similarly high percentage setting targets.

We shall do likewise when promoting the use of the literacy and numeracy certificates as motivational awards. We give priority to linking schools with similar socio-economic characteristics, but with different educational outcomes, so that they can "benchmark" each other's practices.

Third, we have sought to publicise success to establish a climate of expectation of higher achievement, while dealing with occasional and isolated failure promptly and, as far as we can, privately.

There has been a simultaneous focus on the core communication competencies of literacy, numeracy and information technology, through successive "Years". These have enabled enthusiasts and experts from inside and outside the city to share expertise, and to participate in in-service training.

We have thought laterally to find any and every opportunity to broaden support for the schools' efforts. So volunteer adult tutors of literacy and numeracy have come forward and been trained, and we have made it a priority to produce a staffroom discussion series on teaching reading, regular story-telling and numeracy challenges, and to set personal goals of IT competence.

We know, however, that the efforts of outstanding teachers in improving schools will not be enough. That is why we have published our schools' targets and intend to share them within the 39 wards of the city and with the various faith and race communities. It is why we see the next five years straddling the Millennium as crucial. With the Training and Enterprise Council and every other community interest in the city, we shall use the marginal funds provided by a successful single regeneration bid to expand everyone's competence in the vital core skills, of literacy, numeracy and IT.

We have learned enough already to know what a mountain we are climbing as we seek to persuade not just pupils but a whole community that we mean business and that substantial, not marginal, improvement is not only possible, but urgent. That is why our slogan, "Improving on previous best" is a start but not enough. We seek transformation.

After the next election, we need two things from government. First, there needs to be national as well as local funding stability in return for the huge productivity deals the teachers are offering with community support. Second, we need the right mix of support to complement pressure on teachers. Without that nothing will be achieved.

Tim Brighouse is the chief educationofficer for Birmingham

How BIRMINGHAM PARENTS are urged to help pupils

To achieve this certificate your child has demonstrated that shehe: * Is a keen voluntary reader of fiction and non-fiction, in and out of school.

* Likes to try new authors and many different types of books.

* Reads confidently and takes time to be sure of understanding what is read.

* Is beginning to decide what makes a good read and uses judgment about the quality of literature, TV, film, newspapers.

* Can obtain and use information from a variety of sources.

* Perseveres with something which is difficult to understand.

* Can present a summary of key points and present spoken and written reasoned arguments about issues.

To continue to help your child's progress, try to give them the opportunity to: * Continue to try new authors, books and different types of material.

* Get the chance to find out information for themselves, using computers if possible.

* Read to you. No matter how good their reading skills, they will get great pleasure and learn much from reading to someone who enjoys listening to them.

* Your local library, or the city centre's Centre for the Child, will be a great resource.

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