Blitz on reading standards promised

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Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, yesterday promised tough new measures to improve reading in schools.

Details of her plans, which are likely to include a tightening of teacher- training standards, will be announced today to coincide with publication of a report highlighting reading problems in inner-city schools.

The report from the Office for Standards in Education is expected to show that nearly eight out of 10 seven-year-olds in the London boroughs of Islington, Southwark and Tower Hamlets are below expected standards in reading. Mrs Shephard said at the weekend that if inspectors needed greater powers to conduct more such inspections, they would be given them.

The report says teachers were held back by lack of knowledge about how to teach children to read so time spent teaching reading was often wasted. Mrs Shephard wants the list of criteria which trainee teachers have to meet defined more precisely and greater emphasis put on basic skills.

Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, who will present the report, has consistently argued that too many "progressive" teaching methods lower standards. The three local authorities have accused him of altering the report for political reasons.

A Department for Education and Employment spokeswoman said: "Mrs Shephard has read the report on London's schools. She plans to be with the chief inspector when he gives his press conference tomorrow and will make her own statement immediately afterwards, when: "She will be announcing tougher measures in response to the findings in the report."

Ministers have overspent the publicity budget for nursery vouchers by more than 50 per cent but have failed to persuade one-fifth of parents to apply for vouchers, according to official figures released yesterday.

Parents in four local authorities have been offered vouchers worth pounds 1,100 to buy nursery education in state, private or voluntary nurseries. The scheme will be extended to all local authorities next April.

Figures in parliamentary answers to David Blunkett, the Labour spokesman for education, show that pounds 1.1m has been spent so far on publicity, compared with the original budget of pounds 750,000. Yet the figures also show that one in five parents has not applied for a voucher. In Kensington and Chelsea, 55 per cent have applied, in Westminster 60 per cent, Wandsworth 84 per cent and Norfolk 92 per cent.

"It would be hard to conceive a more convoluted and bureaucratic way of promoting an expansion of nursery provision," Mr Blunkett said.

Ministers want the scheme to create more places in private and voluntary nurseries but the figures reveal that two-thirds of four-year-olds in the four local authorities already have places in state schools or nurseries.

A Department for Education and Employment spokeswoman said: "We have a duty to provide information to parents and providers. The intense level of interest they have shown bodes well for when the scheme goes national."