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Ministers to force changes at schools failing literacy tests

Ministers will put pressure on local education authorities to adopt traditional teaching methods if they fail to meet literacy targets. Judith Judd, Education Editor, describes government plans to achieve dramatic improvements in literacy by 2002.

Local authorities who could do better, even though they are getting above average test results will be exposed, Stephen Byers, school standards minister, said yesterday.

At the North of England education conference he published a list of literacy targets for 132 authorities. Some will be expected almost to double the proportion of 11-year-olds reaching the expected standard over the next five years.

Ministers want 80 per cent of pupils to reach the required standard in national English tests. The present figure is 57 per cent. The lowest target for an authority is 70 per cent and the highest 90 per cent. In 1996, only 36 per cent of pupils reached the standard in Tower Hamlets, the worst performing authority. Its target is 70 per cent. The new authority of Nottingham City which comes into existence in April will have to improve from 36 to 72 per cent.

At the other extreme, Wokingham in Berkshire is expected to go up from 74 to 90 per cent and Bury in Lancashire from 66 per cent to 90 per cent.

Rutland, Surrey, Bromley and Solihull also have targets of 90 per cent.

Authorities were asked to chose targets from a 5 per cent range. Mr Byers said that some had been cajoled into setting targets acceptable to the Government. Others had opted to aim for even higher goals. All have agreed acceptable targets.

Mr Byers accepted that progress would be less rapid in areas which are already performing well. He said: "There will be no hiding place for under performance - every parent will know these figures and will judge local education authorities on how they meet them."

Ministers would be monitoring authorities' progress and would take action if any were falling behind.

Most people now accepted, he said, that teaching methods used in the national literacy project, which include phonics and whole-class teaching worked. "If an authority is falling behind ... we will put pressure on them to adopt different methods which will raise literacy levels."

Mr Byers accepted that those authorities in deprived areas would need more help from the Government but said that poverty was no excuse for underachievement. He reassured conference delegates that they had a vital role to play in new education action zones but warned them that they had no God-given right to run schools.

Mr Byers also announced that the Government is to introduce a new kite- marking system for independent schools. The rethink has been prompted by the Utting report on child protection. Talks are taking place between ministers and independent school leaders.