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Education News

Labour failed to fulfil promise to improve pupil literacy rates, warns party's former education adviser Michael Barber


Labour failed to do enough to see its drive to improve pupils’ literacy through, the man behind the programme has acknowledged.

Professor Michael Barber, who was put in charge of raising standards as chief adviser to former Education Secretary David Blunkett and later transferred to Tony Blair’s policy unit, said: “We had a really good run for a while but we didn’t sufficiently see it through.”

For the first four years of the national literacy hour in schools, standards rose dramatically (from 57 per cent of 11-year-olds reaching the required standard to 75 per cent).  It was the first rise in reading standards for nearly 50 years, according to the National Foundation for Education. However, they plateaued in 2001 - and stubbornly refused to rise thereafter.

His comments are likely to be seized upon in the run-up to the general election by Education Secretary Michael Gove as evidence that the Labour government lacked the drive to see the job through.

Professor Barber, speaking at a seminar organised by the National Literary Trust, singled out several reasons for the stagnation - including a watering down of the focus on literacy. There were pressures to introduce other national strategies - such as on behaviour, ICT and science.

In addition, the national literacy hour was followed by “flexibility rather than precision”.  Instead of building on the achievements of the literacy hour, teachers just sighed with relief that they no longer had to do it.

Asked about the recent findings from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development which showed that the UK was alone in the western world in having its 16 to 25-year-olds achieving lower literacy standards than their grandparents’ generation, Professor Barber said one of the reasons could be that secondary schools had not built sufficiently on the improvements in primary schools.

“Somebody had the idea of abolishing the Key Stage Three tests (national curriculum tests for 14-year-olds),” he said.  “I’m not saying it was a bad idea but I wouldn’t have done it.” The tests were axed by Ed Balls when he was Education Secretary.

Professor Barber, who is now Chief Education Adviser to Pearson, said the time was ripe for a renewed drive to improve literacy.

“We have to prioritise literacy,” he said.  “We are not where we want to be.  We really need to do better.  It is the underpinning of so many important things in our society.”

Any new drive, he argued, should include looking at effective pre-school provision - echoing the thoughts on Monday of Baroness Sally Morgan, who chairs education standards watchdog Ofsted and said “the next big, bold, brace move” in education should including setting up a network of academies taking in children from the age of three to 18.

Professor Barber argued that the UK could be proud of its record on provision for three and four-year-olds.

“Britain went from being one of the worst performers in Europe to one of the best between 1995 and 2005,” he added.  However, more needed to be done to make provision effective.

The drive, he added, should also include a sharp focus on phonics - and effective use of the latest technology.  He cited the example of one school in the United States where teachers looked at the data on pupils’ progress at the end of each day before plotting their individual goals for the next day.