Today, the government published a series of commitments on improving education, skills and support for families as part of its levelling up agenda and education reforms. 

Whilst we had been waiting for announcements in this area for some time there was an expectation that a specific White Paper on Literacy would be the most likely form it would take. In the last couple of weeks there was also the suggestion that a greater focus on literacy could be included in one of the other White Papers proposed by government, such as the one focused on school structures and standards. 

What do the policies look like?

The policies announced are undoubtedly ambitious and therefore should be welcomed. Despite the DfE’s significant investment in phonics, wider literacy initiatives have been relatively few on the ground. The proposals include: 

  • National mission to work towards eradicating illiteracy and innumeracy in primary school leavers by 2030 in England 
  • Skills, schools and families at the heart of government plans to improve public services and level up left behind areas  
  • 55 communities with weak education outcomes designated ‘Education Investment Areas’ and will receive intensive support and these areas prioritised for new elite sixth forms  
  • Ambitious targets to increase number doing high-quality skills training by hundreds of thousands – with new unit to identify skills gaps and skills for the future  

A national mission to eradicate illiteracy and the expansion of what were opportunity areas are logical steps in moving ahead with the levelling up agenda, whilst building on existing activity.   

The paper will set a new national mission to ensure that 90 per cent of children leaving primary school in England are reaching the expected standard in reading, writing, and maths by 2030. In 2019, just 65 per cent of pupils met all three standards, with the proportion substantially varying across the country. 

Department of Education press release, “Package to transform education and opportunities for most disadvantaged

Literacy & levelling-up; are these policies achievable?

Clearly DfE believes these proposals are achievable and continuity will help grow the meaningful progress made to date. For example, the continued investment in coastal, rural and post-industrial towns, especially where they were previously designated opportunity areas, will be very welcomed by school leaders in those areas. As a member of the Hastings Opportunity Area working group on literacy, I have seen for myself the impact this additional funding has had both in schools and across communities.  

The detail of the proposals will be published tomorrow, so it is not altogether clear what mechanisms DfE will use to make this happen. That said, the existing infrastructure of school hubs (for English, teacher training and research) provide the opportunity to drive further system improvements without the need to invest in additional structures to deliver results. This will be essential to the success of these policies because the level of investment is likely to be relatively limited.  

What do we want to see in the detail?

If the government is serious about increasing the number of children leaving primary school with the necessary literacy skills, and wishes to do so by encouraging schools to embrace a range of solutions, these proposals should also: 

  • Enable Early Years settings to provide a language-rich environment, with access to high quality texts and materials for stories, non-fiction, rhymes and poems.  
  • Encourage schools to embed rich literary knowledge from a range of experiences and cultural opportunities. Studying the work of and working directly with the creators of our literary heritage and reading for pleasure cannot be underestimated. Schools must be supported and incentivised to enable these experiences to be available to all children and able to deploy a range of approaches based on pupils’ starting points.  
  • Ringfence funding for all schools (including EYFS settings) that supports inclusion and improves the timely identification and support for children who may have additional requirements, especially where they struggle with language and literacy. 
  • Adapt the Early Career Framework so that teachers in every subject and across all phases are secure in literacy approaches that include, but also go beyond phonics.  

These proposals reflect those of the Fair Education Alliance’s Collective Action Working Group for Literacy which I co-chair. We are committed to seeing the teaching literacy across all key stages which is broad, creative, and inclusive.  

We will know tomorrow how the government intends to bring about the results we are all so keen to see. Watch out for our follow-up tomorrow as we analyse the fine print!

Chris Rossiter, Chief Executive – Driver Youth Trust

Chris originally trained as an applied psychologist and has worked across the private, public and charitable sector for over fifteen years. He has particular expertise in special educational needs and disability, and organisational psychology. He is a primary Chair of Governors, Trustee of the Astrea Academy Trust, member of the literacy sub-committee of the Hastings Opportunity Area and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Married to Geoff, Chris lives in Berkshire and has interests which include cycling, wine and twentieth century art. Chris’ real passion is his Labrador, Dolly.