Blair's pounds 5m drive to boost literacy

Summer school puts education at the centre of government programme
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Tony Blair put education firmly back at the centre of the Government's priorities yesterday, announcing plans to expand a summer literacy scheme.

On a visit to Morpeth School in Tower Hamlets, east London, looking bronzed and relaxed after his holiday, the Prime Minister shrugged off talk of an "awful autumn" and suggestions that his honeymoon with the voters had ended, insisting that what mattered was his Government's determination to raise education standards.

Hailing this summer's programme - which has been attended by 1,600 pupils at 50 schools, which have not included Morpeth - a success, he announced a ten-fold increase in summer literacy schools for next year. "What we want to do as a government is to say that education is our number one priority; that it really matters to us," Mr Blair said.

"As important as anything is to get the levels of literacy up for the children coming into secondary school. We are trying to get across to people that education is absolutely essential, not just for us but for the country, that it's an investment worth making," he said.

Yesterday, Mr Blair's call for leading industrialists to pledge money was answered by businessman Maurice Hatter, chairman and owner of IMO Precision Controls Ltd, who donated pounds 1m to expand the programme. This will be matched by pounds 4m from the Government.

Mr Blair said: "There is nothing more important than education. What is important is that people see results ... and see us delivering on the things for which we were elected ... My vision for this country is that we should be the best educated nation in the Western world. If we are able to achieve that all the rest of it doesn't matter."

One of the 30 schools piloting the scheme was Sarah Bonnell School in Stratford, east London. Diane Wilson, assistant headteacher who ran the project for 31 children, enthused about it but warned that the root of the problem should be tackled, saying: "Summer schools can't be there to mop up what should have been done in the primary schools. I accept that with the deprivation in Newham, a lot of the parents are not sufficiently literate to be able to help their children and for many English is their second language.

"But primary class sizes need to be reduced. Many of the children would not have had to have attended if they had had the opportunities which they should have been entitled to early on."

She said the scheme was a great success: "All but two of the children significantly improved."

The education spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, Don Foster agreed. He described the schemes as "firefighting. They are dealing with a problem which should have been eliminated ... The Government needs to turn its attention to tackling the problem at source. That means providing teachers with the tools to do the job. Smaller class-sizes, more books and equipment, and more opportunities for in-service teacher-training."

The Tory education spokes-man, Stephen Dorrell, said: "Today's announcement of more summer literacy schools initiative is for the few, not the many. In the expanded form of the summer literacy schools, they will help only 16,000 - only 3 per cent of the total. Labour must raise their sights."

Yesterday was the final day of the scheme at Thomas Tallis School, in south London. The project leader, Veronica Denyer, said: "We hope to see improvement in their self-esteem, general confidence and ability to cope with the transition from primary to secondary."

Education Extra - The Foundation for After-School Activities, chosen by the Government to co-ordinate the project, welcomed the extra funding. A spokesman, Joshua Hardy, said: "We have achieved so much already, so with literally millions more pounds next year we are optimistic about the results."

A survey published yesterday by education recruitment consultancy LHR Education revealed more than three-quarters of teachers believed it was a good idea but half said they felt poorly informed about it.