Children's grasp of the basics of reading has improved more than threefold, according to the latest results of the north Edinburgh early intervention project, now the model for the Scottish Office drive to raise basic skills in the early years. Elizabeth Maginnis, Edinburgh's education convener, said the results were "astonishing".
One in 10 pupils in primary 3 is now reading well above their age level. Five years ago, tests showed no pupils were.
The project has recorded substantial progress in the four pilot schools as teachers become more familiar with new classroom methods. When it began in 1994, the majority of pupils were poor or non-readers. Swift remedial action included the deployment of nursery nurses as class assistants.
Evidence from the past session reveals children are making enormous gains. In 1994, only 22.7 per cent of children in primary 1 could recognise letters but this rose to 56.25 per cent in 1995, to 58.75 per cent in 1996 and has now leapt to 72.5 per cent.
"The number of children with good alphabetic knowledge has increased by over 300 per cent," Mrs Maginnis said.
Reading attainment in primary 1 shows similar gains. In 1994, only 10 per cent of pupils could read 10 or more words correctly. The figure is now 40 per cent.
Results in primary 2 are equally outstanding with substantial numbers of pupils reading at above average levels. The number of children reading 10 or fewer words fell from 44 per cent in 1994 to 26 per cent after the first year of the project, 19.5 per cent at the end of the second year and 12.5 per cent in 1997.
At primary 3, the numbers of virtual non-readers fell from 41 per cent in 1992 to 10 per cent in 1997. This year 10 per cent of the sample were reading at above the nine year six month level, or 21 months ahead of average chronological age, compared with none in 1992. The percentage of pupils spelling at above average levels has risen from 9.5 per cent to 33.5 per cent.
Greg MacMillan, a senior educational psychologist who has been a pivotal figure in the project, believes next year's performance should be higher still as it will assess the first pupils to come through the four years of the programme. The key achievement, Mr MacMillan maintains, is the number of pupils reading above their chronological age. "That means a lot less trouble for everyone else, not least the learning support teacher," he says.
Mary Monaghan, learning support teacher at Edinburgh's Granton primary, says the most effective move is deploying a nursery nurse who has time to hear the children reading every day, playing with them on related activities and reinforcing their work.
The project aims to provide an integrated programme of early intervention from pre-school to the end of primary 3 after researchers confirmed that early intervention programmes are more effective than remedial work at a later stage. Parent support has been a major factor in the children's progress.