There is compelling evidence that Reading Recovery works. It overturns literacy difficulties for four out of five children who receive it, and most of them go on to achieve appropriate levels in national assessments. Teachers are enthusiastic, knowing they can make a difference.
The scheme came to England in 1990 and had an immediate impact. Its sensitive assessment tools revealed a startling lack of progress for many children in the first year of learning, with some schools having low expectations of poor learners and bilingual children. And it showed what disadvantaged children could achieve, given the right support.
Messages from Reading Recovery were evident in the development of the national literacy strategy and the programme spread throughout the UK. Last year, 700 teachers worked in the scheme, with training available in 23 centres across the UK and Ireland.
In England, however, schools are battling to retain the support they see as essential if their least able children are to succeed. In London, where more than 600 teachers have had training, only 61 remain to support thousands of children. In the drive to balance books, daily one-to-one teaching with specially trained teachers is assumed to be too expensive.
But is this the case in the long run?
Reading Recovery is specifically designed for the lowest attaining children in key stage 1. They are the children with the most complex and deep-seated problems. Two thirds are unable to read the simplest book and one third cannot read more than their own name - if that - after a full year of literacy hours.
We could cut costs by ignoring these children, selecting instead those who are just "under-performing" and who would have more literacy learning and fewer confusions to impede their progress. This would achieve a higher success rate and serve more children, since they would complete the programme faster. But what would happen to the least able children, for whom the programme was designed? What other options are there for those who really struggle to learn literacy; or whose parents don't support their learning; or those who are easily confused; or the ones for whom English is not their first language? These children, if their literacy difficulties are not resolved, cost the education system around pound;2.5 billion a year.
Once children begin to fall behind, they rarely stop needing special provision. Year on year, learning support, with little evidence of children catching up, can cost as much as a Reading Recovery programme.
Reading Recovery provides highly skilled teaching with an intensively trained teacher. Training cuts have been tried, and did not work.
Specialist skills are needed to unravel the complex problems of the lowest achieving children. The paradox of Reading Recovery is that the least able must learn more quickly than the average if they are to catch up within two terms.
Using teaching assistants would save money, but can they solve problems that have defeated the best efforts of good teachers? It is not enough just to "do something" for these children. Reading Recovery is about taking responsibility for their success, and putting them back into the average band for literacy, with the skills to stay there. The scheme prevents children moving up to KS2 as non-readers, reduces the need for long-term support and narrows the range of reading abilities in a class.
We could cut costs by teaching them in groups, but children who can read little more than their own name after a year of teaching have a unique profile of confusions, misunderstandings and coping strategies. If each child is to become an independent reader with a "can-do" attitude to literacy tasks, teachers must work with each on how to use what he or she knows.
We could go for the cheapest option of all and accept that illiterate people, like the poor, will always be with us. But failing to solve children's literacy problems is a very expensive option. Studies by the Basic Skills Agency show the impact of poor literacy on adult life: those who had poor literacy at school were more likely to be in low paid jobs, unemployed or on benefits. Their health was poor, they had more depressive illnesses, with women in the lowest literacy groups five times more likely to suffer depression than those with good literacy skills. (It Doesn't Get Any Better. BSA 1997).
Another BSA report (Basic Skills and Crime. BSA2002) highlights the connection between poor literacy and crime. As many as one in two prisoners have difficulties reading and a Home Office report found that 12 to 16-year-old boys who did not like school were three times more likely to offend. Studies of the impact of education on crime suggest that a small increase in numbers gaining basic qualifications could save up to pound;300 million a year on property crime.
Reading Recovery changes perceptions of what is possible. When the least able child blossoms into an independent, fluent, motivated reader and writer, it is harder to accept the possibility of other children failing.
This scheme costs more than ordinary teaching as it is designed to address an expensive problem, just as in hospitals it costs more to provide intensive care than general nursing. But compared with the cost of poor literacy, Reading Recovery is a very cheap option indeed.
Julia Dou til is a Reading Recovery trainer and national co-ordinator