A multi-agency approach to improving standards in literacy and numeracy among infants in East Lothian seems to be working. "The children are very enthusiastic. They enjoy key words, sounds and the faster pace of work. The more you give them, the more they absorb," enthuses one primary teacher who has been part of the early intervention pilot project at Prestonpans.
Funding from the Scottish Executive has been used over the past three years to encourage collaborative working among schools, parents, local library staff and speech and language therapists. Three schools have been involved - Prestonpans Nursery, Prestonpans Infants and St Gabriel's RC Primary - all of which have made considerable changes to their teaching, with positive results.
In the nursery school, the teachers have taken advice on improving literacy and adapted it to the child-centred nursery philosophy, rather than importing primary school methods. They have done more focussed work on nursery rhymes, set up a literacy area, done more writing and put learning programmes related to literacy in place for each term, with a sharper focus on assessment.
"We have now almost been given the freedom to run with children, especially those at the top end," says Mary Ryan, headteacher of Prestonpans Nursery school. "Nobody would have complained about extending children who were having difficulty, which is what early intervention means to a lot of people. But I think one of the bigger shifts is with the children at the top end. We've been given this freedom to take them on and on and on."
In P1P2 classes, more time has been concentrated on literacy activities, with a greater emphasis on reading. This has seen an increase in the use of big books, key words, rhyme and alliteration.
Equally important has been the shift in attitude to collaborative working and to self-evaluation. The project has emphasised the need for reflection on practice, systematic collection of assessment information for individual children and year groups and the analysis of data to establish patterns in attainment.
The library service has been instrumental in shifting attitudes to books and reading. Its relationship with the community has been improved with the introduction of additional resources and support for schools and families. The staff are workin to provide enjoyable and accessible reading opportunities in Prestonpans. The family literacy worker has been helping parents to improve their skills and confidence and supported them in helping their children with literacy and numeracy.
Early detection of language difficulties increases the chances of success in literacy. So, speech and language therapists have introduced auditory skills screening for eight-month-old babies and about 120 children have been screened in the past two years. Home visits have also helped staff to give advice to parents.
The project, which ended in March, has been evaluated by the Quality in Education Centre at the University of Strathclyde. All the evidence gathered from staff and parents by interviews and questionnaires points to a high degree of confidence that changes in practice have helped children.
Teachers have reported higher expectations of their pupils in language activities. Children have known more key words earlier than expected, have been better at rhythm in music and more aware of sounds, breaking up words themselves and blending them better. They have been better at finding rhyming words and finding out what print means. There also has been an increase in independent writing and greater confidence with books and print.
"They want to know what's on the wall, what speech marks mean. They're leaving notes for the cleaner. They're now able to read their maths pages and are always trying to read things for themselves," says Angela Paul, a teacher at St Gabriel's Primary.
Frances Wraith, a P2 teacher at Prestonpans Infant school, also says the children's progress has been accelerated. "They are more confident and in many ways more like P3 children of the year group when I first came. Eight in the class have done level A reading. They're more confident about tackling new text. They're reading little novels rather than primers."
Individual case studies of pupils seem to substantiate the schools' claims to have made a difference. Data from the primary schools shows a marked improvement in attainment. The main areas of assessment were knowledge of initial sounds and key word recognition (P1 and P2), national test results (P2 and P3) and Quest screening results (P3).
John MacBeath is head of the Quality in Education Centre; Margaret Martin is a freelance education consultant. For details of the project, contact the curriculum officer for quality assurance, Marna Clark, tel 01620 827572