Leading article: New initiatives, old problems

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The Independent Online

The Government's National Literacy Strategy, devised in 1998, was aimed at giving this vital area of teaching a boost. The results have been respectable. The proportion of 11-year-olds reaching the required standard at reading in national tests has increased. There are some legitimate concerns that children are now being "taught to the test" but, in general, progress does seem to have been made.

Yet there is also considerable room for improvement. A recent report by the House of Commons Education Select Committee drew attention to the 17 per cent failure rate in reading tests for 11-year-olds. It cannot be acceptable that almost one in five children leave primary school unable to read properly.

The latest initiative from the Government is directed at the very roots of the problem. The parents of all children in England aged between eight months and four years are to be given free books and information about local libraries. This will mean the distribution of some nine million children's books at an estimated cost of £27m. The goal is to get parents - particularly those who live in homes where there are few books - into the habit of reading to their children from an early age.

The Government is quite right to emphasise the importance of introducing habits of literacy early in a child's development. Ms Kelly also presented further details yesterday of a scheme to give those children who have fallen behind in their reading skills personal tuition to enable them to catch up. Both of these proposals have much to recommend them. In conjunction with the shift back to the synthetic phonics method of teaching, they should ensure that all children leave school able to read and write properly.

But the danger is that these schemes will be implemented while schools lack the resources to capitalise on them. A survey by The Independent last week revealed that three out of four primary schools are being forced to make cuts next term. This could well result in primary schools spending less on school libraries. What is the point of giving children books at home if they do not have them in the classroom?

The Department of Education must not allow its penchant for new initiatives to distract it from the mundane task of ensuring that every primary school is properly equipped.