In a bid to find out what was going on locally and nationally, Exeter University carried out the Primary Improvement Project, a large-scale study of almost 1,400 schools from 1994 to 1997 funded by the Leverhulme Trust. Taking a broad definition of "improvement", to include positive changes in attitude and reading behaviour, as well as raised test scores, we investigated efforts being made at regional, school and classroom level to improve literacy, especially reading.
We found a complex nexus of relationships. Thirty-five teachers observed in the study were, with one exception, regarded by their heads as successful practitioners.
Almost two-thirds of 258 children studied individually showed an improvement beyond the norm over the school year.
Some pupils seemed to improve substantially as a result of their teachers' efforts. Others received much help at home, usually from mothers or sisters. Many children made special efforts themselves, sometimes with little direct help from parents, and occasionally in spite of jibes from fellow pupils. About one in three made relatively less progress over the year, some sliding steadily downwards because of adverse family or personal circumstances.
Particularly striking was the importance of context. Schools, classes and individuals may improve for similar reasons, but the detail can be quite different. While most teachers in the sample were deemed proficient teachers, their lessons took many forms. Children's individual pathways through the year were equally varied.
None of the teachers adopted on a regular basis the 15-15-20-10-minute pattern that was later to become the literacy hour paradigm.
The four linked studies were based on:
* Questionnaires about practice within the school (a national sample of 1,395 schools);
* Analysis of policy and practice in local authorities, especially Birmingham, which had set up a high-profile literacy campaign;
* Lesson observation of a national sample of 35 teachers, from reception to Year 6, testing 355 of their pupils' reading at the start and end of the school year;
* Intensive classroom observation of 258 pupils and interviews with some of their parents to find out about children's progress.
Some of the teachers had the highest "pupil on-task" and lowest "misbehaviour" scores we have ever recorded in classroom observation. Impeccable classroom management, achieved in a variety of ways, was a notable feature in many of the classes that improved over the year.
Ms Brown, a Year 1 teacher, was one of many who had much more than good management. "I find every opportunity to talk about books," she said, frequently bringing in her own. Her "authors' corner" was changed on a regular basis, whereas in some other classes the same author was displayed untouched for a term or even a year.
Individual children's success was celebrated publicly, often with enthusiastic praise, sometimes using rewards such as stars and stickers. She was also an ace differentiator. Six-year-old Paul lacked confidence and made slow progress, so Ms Brown mouthed the first syllable of a word. "That way he feels he's got it right - I haven't told him." Oliver, by contrast, was a voracious reader, so she let him take nine books home for February half-term, by which time he had already read 115 books.
When schools were asked what they were doing to raise standards, one of the most common answers was "involving parents more". More than 90 per cent of schools said they sent home reading records or spellings to learn. About half ran meetings for parents on reading or had a video or booklet.
Reading at home was most often done by mothers. In the five-to-seven age group, three out of four mothers, but only one father in two said they helped with reading, while in the seven-to-11 age range it was one in two mothers and one father in four.
Parents had varied experiences. Some said teachers were uninterested in their questions or views. Others were more positive. One school decided to guarantee each child a weekly reading interview after a parent's complaint.
Parents often wanted to know specifically how to help, but some schools tended to tell them: "Just enjoy it." But if a child reads "book" instead of "boot", what should a parent do? Pressure for help and advice came from more than just the ambitious middle-classes. One mother, a poor reader, told proudly how her five-year-old daughter had shown her how to split up difficult words.
Some schools had ambitious programmes, home visits and links to access courses for parents who needed help with their own English.
Some parents had forgotten when they had read children's classics themselves. One frustrated six-year-old concluded: "I think I'm a good reader at school. I'm not a good reader at home." His parents were asking him to read books beyond his level of competence.
By the end of the school year, eight-year-old Eva had improved her reading score by a staggering 32 points, from 102 to 134. Another eight-year-old pupil, Jack, went down the scale by 25 points, from 125 to 100. If Jack had been taught by Mr Green, Eva's skilful teacher, whose class improved by an average of more than five points during the year, would he have done better?
The astonishing truth is that he did have Mr Green. Jack and Eva, examples of two of the biggest rises and falls in a year, were classmates. Eva's mother supported her avidly, helping her produce a substantial book of her own writing. But Jack's home life disintegrated as his parents separated during the year. He was often absent and rarely concentrated in class, often seeming far away.
In common with other researchers, we found girls outperformed boys at almost every level. This poor start is not rectified in secondary schools, where boys often slip further behind. With the disappearance of "heavy" jobs, and a premium on language competence, this is a serious problem for the 21st century. Boys improved at roughly the same rate as girls during the year, but they started about four or five points behind and stayed down.
When five-year-olds Charlotte and Ben started infant school, they obtained identical low scores on a baseline language test. By the end of the year Ben was struggling, while Charlotte was the second best reader in the class. Lesson observation showed Charlotte concentrating hard during language activities, whereas Ben, happier making a shaker out of two yoghurt pots, avoided books.
Children who improved significantly were often most appreciative, recognising that they could now enjoy books and get their work done more quickly.
Ten-year-old David hated reading at the start of Year 5 - only his Liverpool football comic appealed - but loved it by July. His reading score had improved by only one point, but he was grateful to his teacher, Mrs Jackson, for giving him books on sport, adventure and humour.
Others had to ride the taunts of their peers. Eleven-year-old Richard was phlegmatic: "Some people think I'm daft reading, but I just like reading. "
LOCAL EDUCATION AUTHORITIES
Local authorities underwent a period of considerable change after the 1988 Education Act. Some, including Birmingham, tried to be proactive. Responses to our national questionnaire showed that 94 per cent of heads in the city were aware of local authority initiatives, against an average of 46 per cent in the other 108 LEAs in England.
Other differences included Birmingham's higher profile given to reading activities such as the Year of Reading - chief education officer Tim Brighouse's personal contribution.
During the research period, reading scores in Birmingham primaries improved beyond the national average, albeit starting from a low base.
* All teacher and pupil names are fictitious
* 'Improving Literacy in the Primary School' by E C Wragg, C M Wragg, G S Haynes and R P Chamberlin, the book describing the research findings of the Leverhulme Primary Improvement Project, will be published by Routledge on October 8, Pounds 12.99
TEN SIGNS OF A SUCCESSFUL TEACHER
A high level of personal enthusiasm for literature, often supplementing the school's resources with their own books
* Good professional knowledge of children's authors and teaching strategies
* Importance of literacy stressed within a rich literacy environment
* Progress celebrated publicly and children's confidence increased
* Teaching individualised and matched to pupil's ability and reading interests
* Systematic monitoring and assessment
* Regular and varied reading activities
* Pupils encouraged to develop independence and autonomy, attacking unfamiliar words, or teachers backing pupils' judgment as authors
* A high quality of classroom management skill and personal relationships with pupils
* High expectations, children striving to reach a high standard, whatever their circumstances