David Henderson reports.
Early intervention in the first few years of primary is probably too late to make a substantial difference to children's prospects, Michael White, director of education in Aberdeenshire, told a national conference in Edinburgh last week.
"We need to start talking about a learning entitlement for every child from the moment it's born- not fritter money away when the damage is done and it's too late," he warned.
Mr White, a strong advocate of new community schools and collaborative working, called for an end to the "turf wars" between professionals.
Children and families at most disadvantage needed everyone working together from a very early age.
He was backed by Colin Harrison, professor of literacy studies at Nottingham University and one of the leading academics on reading.
Seventy-five per cent of brain development occurs between birth and the age of two, Professor Harrison told the conference sponsored by the Scottish Executive. "The implications of this for agencies who should be working together are enormous," he said.
Mr White described the education system as "upside down and inside out", and called for even greater support to families with young children in poverty. "If there is a limited pot of money, pump it into the early years," he advised.
"I know this is controversial, but why not class sizes of five or 10 in the early years? Let's all sign up to getting in early and giving pupils a better chance," he said.
He found it strange secondaries had a guidance system, but primaries had none. Mr White called for a family guidance system which implied joint working, even though it would have huge implications for training and staff development.
He added: "Early intervention in my view will be the domino that sets the others falling and brings together the major initiatives on social inclusion. We've got to stop the turf wars, the separate budgets and people being protective of their own empires." Arguments between teachers, nursery nurses and classroom assistants over their respective roles did not help families.
Mr White continued: "If we're serious about families, we need to look at how they're being fed, their fuel needs, clothing, health and travel. For many children, their range of experiences is so narrow because they've never been able to see life beyond the end of their street."
Professor Harrison said the latest research on the brain shows that neuro connections, which provide activity we associate with cleverness, are damaged or disappear when children are crying or miserable. But the connections build when they are happy and loved. Families, he said, are therefore vital.
Health professionals were key figures in the early stages of literacy and some were signing up parents with libraries: "Health visitors know a lot about dealing with families at risk of falling out of the system that teachers do not. They can get people to fill in forms who do not fill in forms. Health professionals are crucial in the first stages.
"Equally, people in family literacy projects know lots of stuff we do not in education. We have lots to learn on how to work with different agencies.
They have different value systems and they have barriers about working with people in the education service," the professor said.
Professor Harrison said many books were needed in classrooms if children were to develop fluency and comprehension: "It's having lots of books available that are attractive and kids want to borrow that matters."
He added: "Tackling phonics is essential and most kids benefit from it.
There's a degree of consensus on that among reading experts."
The professor, a frequent visitor to Scotland, said research also revealed that staff development on literacy can take up to 18 months to show classroom gains: "Things do not happen overnight."
Extra staff and more books would have more immediate effect. Staff development had to be sustained over a period with structures in schools to support it. And regular two monthly updates in school, or between schools, were helpful to meet targets and review progress, Professor Harrison said.