Literacy dominates most educational debates. Whether it is the need to be literate, the means by which we become literate or the fear that we are becoming less literate, some aspect of literacy is never far away from the news headlines. In a way this is hardly surprising. Access to the world of print is the foundation of most schooling and a prerequisite for most employment. To be illiterate is to be virtually disenfranchised as a twentyfirst century citizen. Its importance and newsworthiness make it a subject that politicians cannot ignore and since New Labour came to power in 1997, there has been an unprecedented number of initiatives aimed at raising attainment in this key area of the curriculum.
1998 saw the first national literacy strategy (NLS) for primary schools (DfEE 1998). Three years later, a similar framework was introduced for secondary school English departments (DfEE 2001). The following year, guidelines were made available for literacy across the curriculum (DfEE 2002). In 2003, the primary national strategy was launched, under which umbrella the NLS was now to work. And 2006 saw the publication of the Rose Report, commissioned to inform future policy. This set out the precise method to be used in teaching young children to read — a strategy known as synthetic phonics which will be discussed below (DfES 2006).
With the possible exception of the cross-curricular document, all these publications share a common tone. They are immensely detailed and prescriptive, particularly the Rose Report (2006). Each characterizes literacy as a series of competencies that need to be acquired before an individual can become literate; most come with a clear set of targets. The primary national strategy, for example, requires schools to set specific and agreed targets (with the local authority) as to the number of pupils who are to achieve a level 4 in national tests at age 11; the national target is 80 per cent. All these