Labour pledges pounds 20m US-style literacy drive

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The Independent Online
Literacy programmes in the United States, New Zealand and Australia will provide the blueprint for Labour's ambitious plans to retrain all primary teachers to teach reading in its drive against illiteracy to be announced this week.

Writing in today's Independent, Professor Michael Barber, head of the party's literary taskforce, makes clear that teachers will be retrained to use prescribed reading methods including phonics (matching sounds and letters) and whole class teaching. The programme will involve more detailed control of how teachers teach than has ever been attempted before.

Labour will also make an hour a day on literacy compulsory for all primary schools when the national curriculum is revised in 2000.

Labour's plans are the latest in the pre-election battle over education. The Prime Minister disclosed the Conservatives latest proposals on Saturday when he said that marks out of a hundred in national tests will be published for all pupils instead of the present grades which cover a wide range of marks.

Professor Barber describes how a systematic approach to teaching reading pioneered by Bob Slavin at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, has raised standards in 475 schools in the US. A similar approach has also succeeded in Victoria, Australia. In both programmes, teachers aim to surround children with large numbers of books and the pace of teaching is quick.

Labour's national literacy targets will include bringing 80 per cent of 11-year-olds up to the expected standard in national English tests by 2001. At present, 43 per cent fail to reach the target. The party wants all children to reach it by the end of two Labour governments. Labour has costed literacy changes at pounds 20m a year which would be redirected from other parts of the education budget.

Questioned on BBC 1's Breakfast with Frost yesterday, David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, said: "It is getting it right from the beginning, using the right methods, setting aside an hour a day and having targets that make it possible for us to lift our horizons."

The Government's national literacy project has already introduced a "literacy hour" as well as a bigger emphasis on phonics and grammar in a small number of pilot schools but Labour's plans go much further.

A spokesman for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said: "Primary teachers are already concentrating intensely on literacy. They will be upset to hear yet another criticism of what they're trying to do. They are not opposed to new ideas provided they are consulted about them."

Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, angered teachers by saying that the Prime Minister's remarks meant that tests for 7-, 11- and 14-year-olds would be simplified again despite repeated revisions over the last seven years.

"We are not just talking about simplifying scores but about simplifying tests," he said. "We would then be able to give parents a mark for their children that they would easily understand." Pupils' marks in national tests are already available to parents on request.

Government advisers are also piloting a scheme where parents of seven- year-olds are told how their child has performed in reading in relation to their age.

pounds 10bn illiteracy, page 15