Shephard prepares for battle of the basics

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The Independent Online
The Secretary of State for Education and Employment, Gillian Shephard, yesterday signalled a new campaign to raise standards of literacy and numeracy, paving the way for a pre-election battle of the basics with Labour.

Mrs Shephard's announcement, at the North of England Education Conference in Sheffield, stole a march on Labour, which is due to publish its own proposals for a literacy campaign within weeks.

Her address, conspicuously lacking electioneering fire, is due to be followed today by a forceful assault on the Conservatives' education agenda by Labour's education spokesman, David Blunkett.

Mr Blunkett will blame a skills shortfall on 17 years of Tory rule and warn of a string of dangers lying ahead if the Conservatives win a fifth term in Government. A further term in power would mean "five more years of dogma driving education policy, instead of clear practical policies to raise standards", he will say.

Mrs Shephard placed new emphasis on the three Rs, just a year after announcing plans for literacy and numeracy centres in 27 local authorities to tackle the same problem. She told the conference that schools, colleges and local authorities had made great strides in boosting basic skills, but acknowledged a lack of co-ordination among the agencies engaged in the "battle for basics".

A "small but significant minority" of young people were still leaving education with inadequate standards of literacy and numeracy. Employers had "widespread concerns" about job applicants' basic skills, and even doubted the suitability of graduates. School-leavers with poor literacy and numeracy faced a bleak future, excluded from a life of learning and many job opportunities.

Later this month, Mrs Shephard will announce proposals to involve every education and training agency in a national campaign to boost basic skills standards. Key players will include schools, further and higher education institutions, the schools inspection agency Ofsted, teacher-trainers, local authorities and employers.

Mrs Shephard said: "Through ... clearer target-setting and better co- ordination, I am convinced we can bring about greater and more telling involvement and more effective help to those who need it."

Labour will next month publish details of its strategy, developed by the party's literacy task force, to ensure the reading age of all 11- year-olds matches their years.

Mr Blunkett will say today: "We cannot tolerate 40 per cent of our primary school children not reaching an acceptable standard when they transfer to comprehensive school. We cannot have over a third of our children two or more years behind in their reading ability."

He will claim that a fifth term of Conservative rule would mean selection in primary schools, leading to reduced parental choice, and to the "privatisation" of schools via a voucher system. A new funding formula for schools would be introduced, cutting over pounds 600m from existing spending, leading more parents to have to raise funds themselves to pay for books and materials, he will say.

Mr Blunkett will also announce Labour proposals to use lottery funds to train teachers in computer skills.