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Wednesday, January 7, 1998 Published at 19:30 GMT

UK: Politics

Government sets tough literacy targets
image: [ Teachers are under pressure to produce better results in reading and writing among 11-year-olds ]
Teachers are under pressure to produce better results in reading and writing among 11-year-olds

For the first time, the government has set every education authority in England stiff targets to improve standards of reading and writing.

The government wants 80% of children to reach a certain level of literacy by the time they leave primary school.

The targets vary for each authority, but some of the most deprived areas of the country will have to make the biggest improvements.

[ image: Some inner-city areas will have to make the biggest improvements]
Some inner-city areas will have to make the biggest improvements
In Brixton in south London, for example, less than half of 11-year-olds reach the required level, but the local authority has been told it must reach a target of 80% within four years.

Corpus Christi primary school in Brixton gets results well above the national average. However, the school's head teacher, John Wentworth, has reservations about the government's plans.

[ image: John Wentworth:
John Wentworth: "targets quite demoralising"
He says it will be challenging for schools which are already doing the best they can in the circumstances.

"They are going to be made to feel they have failed in some way if they don't reach the targets, and that is going to be quite demoralising for some of the teachers in those schools."

Other areas like Richmond in Surrey, which already has good results, must aim even higher at around 90%.

No authority will be allowed to get less than 70%.

The targets were announced by the Schools Minister, Stephen Byers, at the North of England Education Conference in Bradford.

[ image: Stephen Byers:
Stephen Byers: "We will monitor each authority"
Mr Byers said he was confident that the targets were achievable, although he admitted they were ambitious.

"We will be monitoring each authority on an annual basis, and if there is an indication that they are beginning to fall behind, then will intervene to give support and to demonstrate how they can improve the teaching of reading and writing."

Some teachers point out many of their pupils - those of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Nigerian, Chinese or Somali origin - do not speak English at home or with their friends.

Education experts say children from deprived homes are also disadvantaged. Their parents may not have the time or money to buy books or read to them and may also have poor literacy skills themselves.

Bethan Marshall, of the National Association of Teachers of English, predicts the targets will force teachers to narrow their curriculum.

"The tests are so narrow that you are only testing a minute amount of what it means to become an accomplished reader.

"If you have teachers who being told they have to get children through the test then they will teach to that test. But what they will have to do is neglect all those other areas of the reading curriculum.

The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has given high priority to improving educational standards.

Wednesday's initiative does not affect schools in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

Literacy targets were mentioned in a Welsh Office White Paper last year, but they will be drawn up by local education authorities and not imposed from above.

The Scottish Office is considering imposing literacy targets but no firm date has been given.

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