West Lothian's experience will reinforce the determination of the main political parties to switch resources to the early years. Labour is committed to doing so, and the Government has announced a three-year package costing #163;9 million. The Education Minister told local authorities last week that they would hear by the end of May how the cash is to be allocated.
West Lothian says an increase in pupils' alphabetic knowledge was the biggest change in nine of the 28 nursery and primary schools where follow-up interviews took place after training sessions were laid on for staff. Phonological awareness and common sight words were also singled out by a third of schools.
Benefits ranged from raised staff awareness of the different components of reading, which was particularly valued by teachers normally working in the upper school, to increased enthusiasm for reading among pupils, which was reported by half the schools. Parents were also more supportive.
But a report adds: "Despite teachers' best efforts to implement recommended strategies and imaginative use of limited resources, there remain a number of schools where significant numbers of children are making slower progress in reading and writing and require much more individual support."
The council is pledged to target these children if it is successful in its bid for #163;300,000, the maximum allowed to any one authority in the first year of the Government's early intervention grant. Eight West Lothian primaries with the lowest reading scores are recommended for special action next session.
The major management issue for schools was staffing. A third of the staff involved said training had used up all their planned activity sessions and there was no time left for follow-up work. While the emphasis on early literacy was welcomed, there was concern about the switch of learning support from the upper primary.
Reading difficulties were inevitably linked to pupils from deprived backgrounds who were found to have poor phonological awareness, concepts of print, alphabetic knowledge and analogy. The report from the project suggests that more nursery nurses or classroom assistants, who would also require training, are needed for schools facing these particular problems.
The need to extend support for early learning has led to the setting up of a West Lothian early intervention community liaison group representing libraries, community education and adult education as well as schools. Work with parents and the wider community is described as "vital" and it will be one of the criteria used by the Government in distributing grants.
The Scottish Office is consulting on a draft circular which proposes that council bids should focus on improvements to basic literacy and numeracy in the first two years of primary. Funding will meet the full costs of projects in the first year, and two-thirds in the next two.