Labour plans blitz on illiteracy

As a May Day election looms, the battleground now includes education - and the view of Salisbury Cathedral
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The Independent Online
Labour will raise the stakes in the election battle over education this week with a sweeping plan to improve the reading levels of schoolchildren, which will involve extensive retraining of teachers and summer schools for pupils who are falling behind.

David Blunkett, shadow secretary of state for education, will announce the plan on Thursday with a report by the party's literacy task force. This will call for a big increase by the end of a first Labour parliament in the number of 11-year-olds meeting the required reading standard.

Mr Blunkett's move will be seen as an attempt to trump the Conservatives, who yesterday showed how central they consider education to be when John Major pledged more precise information on children's school marks, and "hit squads" for failing local education authorities.

In an aggressive speech in Birmingham the Prime Minister likened Tony Blair to "a weak contestant on Mastermind". He referred to poor standards in Islington, Mr Blair's London borough, and spoke of the London Oratory, the grant-maintained school Mr Blair's son attends.

Mr Blunkett will return to the attack at an Islington conference when he releases the report of the party's literacy task force, which offers a blueprint for one of the most ambitious literacy programmes in British history.

The document marks a dramatic shift in educational philosophy as, for the first time, teachers will be required to assume that all children, regardless of ability or background, can reach a fixed reading standard by the age of 11.

The idea, common in Pacific Rim countries, runs counter to decades of received wisdom in British educational circles that children should be allowed to work at their own pace, and that there will always be a substantial minority who cannot make the grade.

Plans to lay down from the centre exactly how reading should be taught are also new, and go far beyond Government proposals announced last week for a national curriculum for teacher training.

Mr Blunkett has already said that he wants all 11-year-olds to reach the expected standard in national tests in English within 10 years. The new report, by Professor Michael Barber, dean of new initiatives at London University's school of education, will say that 80 per cent should do so within the lifetime of a single parliament. At present 43 per cent, around 250,000 children, are failing to reach the required level.

There is no suggestion that pupils who fail to make the grade would be kept down as they are in some countries.

Mr Blunkett will tell the conference that the changes will be achieved by a national programme of teacher training in literacy for primary teachers. The emphasis will be on fast-paced teaching including phonics and whole- class reading.

There will also be "reading recovery" programmes with intensive tuition for children who are falling behind after two years in primary school. For those still behind at 11 there will be summer holiday literacy schools to bring them up to scratch.

No new money will be involved. About pounds 20m a year now being spent on existing initiatives will be redirected to teacher training and reading recovery.

Mr Major's offering to voters yesterday, in a speech to more than 2,000 activists at a rally at Birmingham's International Convention Centre, was to make schools release precise marks for every test sat by pupils aged seven, 11 and 14. Mr Major promised to turn Ofsted, the education watchdog, on each failing local education authority, adding: "We will improve them if we can, and replace them if we can't".

Tories' hearts sink, page 4