The Reading Recovery programme was launched in Britain before the 1992 election to help the lowest achieving 20 per cent of six year-olds nationally. Today it is dealing with the lowest 1 per cent and is hanging on to its role by a thread in many cash-strapped schools.
A range of reports over the past year or so have reached contradictory conclusions about the long-term effectiveness of the programme, in New Zealand and the US, as well as in Britain. However, it was heavily endorsed by HM Inspectors who went to New Zealand to see the programme in action, and one study published in The TES this year traced Reading Recovery "graduates" in New Zealand and Australia and found them achieving slightly ahead of a control group of non-Reading Recovery pupils.
It is a frustrating situation for those who believe the programme is crucial to meeting government literacy targets. Although Labour broadly supports the programme, it has said a big expansion would depend upon "economic growth bringing additional funds intoeducation."
Between 1994 and 1996 the number of children going through the programme fell from 4,800 to 4,500 and the number of teachers supported by Grants for Education Support and Training (GEST) dropped from 750 to 300. About 15 local authorities are still getting some money from the European Union's single regeneration budget following the cessation of systematic government funding at the end of its three-year pilot.
Angela Hobsbaum, a national co-ordinator for Reading Recovery in Britain, said: "There is no doubt that the shortage of funds at school level has impacted upon uptake. Schools cannot afford to release teachers for half their time to train in Reading Recovery."
Many of the scheme's teachers were promoted out of their work, further compounding the situation. She added: "The effect of this is that instead of reaching the lowest 20 per cent, we are reaching perhaps 1 per cent of six-year-olds nationally.
"At present it is just hanging on and it is difficult to keep quality high when dealing with the bottom 1 per cent who are very difficult children. Nevertheless we are seeing some good results withindividual children."
Now the scheme's supporters are making a strong case to Labour, arguing that Reading Recovery sits neatly alongside the national literacy programme. Teachers involved in that scheme have gained a clearer understanding about grading reading levels, a skill that is also central to Reading Recovery. This would create an all-important teaching consistency in the mainstream classroom.
Castle Hill Primary in Croydon, south London, is so keen on Reading Recovery that a year ago, it extended the scheme so that support staff could use its methods to help larger numbers of children. This academic year, the school is keeping the programme going by using up all its reserves.
So far, the investment has paid off. National curriculum test scores in English soared between 1996 and 1997. With the proportion getting the target level 2 or above rising from 42 per cent to 77 per cent, the school has picked itself up from the bottom of the league table.
However, with falling rolls, and the consequent reduction in the school's budget of about Pounds 80,000, the programme's future looks uncertain.
"Our scheme had made a significant difference," said Roy De Boise, the headteacher. "There is a real buzz about the place now, a real optimism, and it is shared by the parents. The Government has to realise schools like ours need resources and support to be able to continue with our programmes."
Castle Hill, in Fieldway, one of Croydon's main social and economic problem areas, employs three part-time Reading Recovery teachers (two doing additional special-needs work) and five learning support assistants.
When the scheme was extended last year, two Reading Recovery teachers targeted 16 lowest achieving children across three Year 1 classes. Then 12 slightly higher achieving children were taken out of each class by a learning support assistant for 30 minutes a day and tutored in groups of four using Reading Recovery strategies which the trained teachers had demonstrated. In Year 2, 32 children were supported in a similar way.
The learning support staff and classroom teachers followed guidelines covering lesson content, pace and the use of appropriate strategies and prompts. Its effects have been monitored weekly.
Everyone has been convinced by its benefits to the children involved: improved self-esteem, attention and feelings of success, and were surprised by its impact.
Sheila Wright, special needs co-ordinator and a Reading Recovery teacher, said the literacy support programme was not a replacement for Reading Recovery but a partner programme to run in parallel. Staff have worked with pupils on letter identification, sight vocabulary and written vocabulary, sound blends, increasingly difficult texts, hearing and recording short sentences and writing high frequency words fluently.
She said: "We knew there was a whole band of children we could not reach through the programme, but who needed help. They found difficulties in articulating words correctly and in expressing themselves and so they found it hard to put these things down on paper."
Mr De Boise does not believe unpredictable factors such as fluctuating pupil numbers should threaten this work.
"It makes me really angry that when we make significant achievements like this we face the constant threat of having funds cut. The money for this sort of work needs to be ring-fenced and not dependent on the vagaries of pupil movement," he said.