By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website
Schools were given precise frameworks setting out what to teach
The Labour government began introducing the literacy and numeracy strategies in England a year after coming to office.
Writing to teachers in September 1998 its first education secretary, David Blunkett, said the year ahead was going to be a busy one.
"The start of the daily literacy hour in primary schools this term is a key element of our National Literacy Strategy to raise children's levels of achievement dramatically by 2002," he said.
He added: "Later in the year, we will be helping teachers to prepare for the next big push to raise standards which will be the introduction of the National Numeracy Strategy in September 1999."
The literacy strategy was marked by the insistence on a daily "literacy hour" - which became a near-universal feature of primary school mornings from then on.
There never was a numeracy hour as such - it was "the daily maths lesson" - but inevitably the phrases became bracketed together in staffroom parlance.
They did for pupils, too.
I forget which raconteur tells the tale, but he was in a primary school to see how it was implementing the new strategies and one little boy, obviously confused by the jargon, told him they were doing "lunacy".
The strategies have only ever been recommended, not compulsory.
Confident, successful schools have always taken a "pick and mix" approach to government initiatives of this sort and if their results are good, Ofsted inspectors would have few grounds for challenging their way of doing things.
There might be awkward questions though for schools that were not delivering the results ministers wanted to see, if they were not using the centrally-approved strategies.
These have been highly prescriptive.
The initial literacy "framework" provided minute-by-minute model lessons for primary schools. The one for five to seven-year-olds consisted of the following:
- Fifteen minutes sitting together working from a shared large print book.
- A further 15 minutes focusing on certain words with the class.
- Twenty minutes devoted to reading or writing on their own or in small groups.
- The final 10 minutes should be spent in a group going over all the main points.
The advice even set out lists of words pupils should be familiar with by a certain age.
By the time they were seven they should know words such as "laugh", "night" and "people".
As the strategies evolved they ceased to have separate names, being merged in the Primary strand of the wider National Strategies which now also cover a number of secondary school subjects.
They are highly detailed, amounting almost to a "cut out and teach" breakdown of what lessons should cover.
For instance, in Year 4, Block B, nine weeks are to be devoted to "securing number facts, understanding shape".
Unit B1 involves three "assessment focuses" on reasoning, solving numerical problems and properties of shapes.
"Children round numbers to the nearest 10 and 100 and then round money to the nearest pound," it says.
"They recognise that rounding helps them to estimate the result of a calculation. They also realise that they can use their understanding of inverses to check the accuracy of calculations."
And so on.
Teachers still have to be skilled classroom practitioners and devise lesson plans in consultation with their subject co-ordinators.
But what they have to cover as they head inexorably towards the national curriculum tests or "Sats" in Year 6 is all laid out.
The pace is relentless. A downside of the approach is that making time for "catch up" sessions with children who did not grasp the concepts first time around could be tricky, in an already crowded timetable.
Have the strategies worked? National curriculum test results rose dramatically in the first few years.
But the significance of this is disputed by some experts, who regard it simply as a well-known phenomenon within assessment systems in response to changes.
And in any case in recent years the pace of progress, if that is what is being seen, has slowed dramatically
Exactly how all this is going to change still needs to be clarified, with a White Paper outlining this and other changes due next week.
But our understanding is that what will go is the requirement on schools to get their support materials for the strategies from the government's contractor, Capita.
Instead they will have money devolved into their own school budgets to spend as they choose on other providers or in collaboration with other schools locally.