HC Deb 19 November 1998 vol 319 cc1098-9
5. Jackie Ballard (Taunton)

If he will make a statement on implementation of the national literacy hour. [59106]

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett)

The literacy hour came into being in September. Three hundred thousand framework documents have been issued, and training for co-ordinators in every school and training materials for every teacher have been provided. We are delighted that the response in schools up and down the country has been tremendous. As with the literacy pilot schemes, there have been great improvements in literacy, phonics and the grammar of children who have been undertaking the literacy hour.

Jackie Ballard

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. Recently, the chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, offered to intervene on behalf of schools that do not want to implement aspects of the national literacy strategy, including the literacy hour, providing that they can prove to him that their results are good enough. Will the Secretary of State clarify who is in charge of implementation of the literacy hour—the national literacy centre or the chief inspector of schools?

Mr. Blunkett

The chief inspector has a very clear role in assessing, through inspection, whether schools are providing the quality and meeting the standards that we have stipulated. His job, therefore, is to assess whether teaching methods are appropriate. If the literacy hour is adapted, so that it allows a school to meet a pupil's particular needs and reach the targets that it, the education authority and the Government are establishing, there is no problem whatever.

The approach is not prescriptive but proactive, ensuring that schools meet the best and that all children, whichever school they attend, will be able to read and write by the time they reach secondary level.

Mrs. Sylvia Heal (Halesowen and Rowley Regis)

Does my right hon. Friend share my view that it is extraordinary that Conservative Members oppose the literacy hour? Does that not reveal their wish to avoid teaching most children in primary schools the basics of phonics, grammar and spelling?

Mr. Blunkett

My hon. Friend raises an important point, because the shadow Secretary of State for Education and Employment—for want of a better term—has written about his disagreement with the literacy hour in The Times Educational Supplement.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

It is too rigid.

Mr. Blunkett

What is rigid about it is that people are being asked to teach phonics, grammar and spelling. We need the Conservatives to tell us now, in public, whether they have abandoned any wish for children in our state schools to have the same opportunities as they buy for their own children in private education.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

I assure the Secretary of State that the Conservatives are, of course, committed to improving literacy standards. The issue is whether the Government's literacy hour will achieve that. In Birmingham last month, members of the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers told Professor Barber, the head of the Government's standards and effectiveness unit, that the literacy strategy is pushing teachers to breaking point.

Recent research by Warwick university has suggested that the literacy hour is too long—[Laughter.] Yes it is. Last month the Secretary of State for Scotland supported the launch of an alternative literacy strategy based on research that showed that of a number of literacy programmes, those advocated for the literacy hour gave the worst results. Will the Secretary of State now listen to the voices of academics and teachers, and to his right hon. Friend, and think again?

Mr. Blunkett

When is an hour not an hour? When it is only 59 minutes? What a silly comment. We are building the literacy strategy entirely on the experience of the national literacy centres. In a spirit of co-operation, just in case the hon. Lady has forgotten, I remind her that it was her own damn Government that set up the national literacy centres in the first place. We have drawn on the evidence of the centres that her party set up, we have established programmes across the country, and we have learnt that in two years the national literacy framework improved the reading age of children by eight to 12 months.

The programme is working, as is demonstrated by a 10-point increase in the English and literacy standards of those 11-year-olds over the past two years, and it will work in every town and city in the country. As one teacher in Birmingham put it: I was determined to be critical of it, but I find I can't be". Such reservations, of course, have never stopped Conservative Members.