CHALLENGING THE assumption that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are doomed to low literacy levels is a key route to social inclusion, says West Dunbartonshire.
The council, which claims to be the second most deprived authority in Scotland, believes its "jolly phonics" programme is paying dividends after just one year, one of many such initiatives boasting major improvements.
A report this week reveals remarkable results following assessments of all 4,000 pre-school, primary 1 and primary 2 children. They show:
* A 152 per cent increase in the recognition of letter sounds at the school which ranked lowest after tests in 1997.
* A 95 per cent increase in phonological skills.
* An 8 per cent increase in knowledge of the alphabet.
* A 30 per cent increase in letter recognition.
* A 20 per cent increase in word blending skills.
Tommy MacKay, a researcher who has helped develop the project, believes a secret of its success is an approach that encompasses pre-school through to primary 2 and beyond. "Jolly phonics" uses 42 phonetic sounds instead of the 26 letters of the alphabet.
Danny McCafferty, West Dunbartonshire's education convener, said: "We aim to change the accepted belief that people in lower socio-economic areas will always have marked underachievement in literacy, and therefore in their overall performance at school."
The council wants every child from primary 1 to primary 5 to reach the national average reading score for their age within five years. It is receiving pound;1 million over three years from the Government's early intervention programme, which supports the work of a headteacher and 10 staff.
The initiative also includes fostering literacy among parents, the involvement of the library service and a pilot in which community education staff work with parents of primary 1 pupils. France has expressed an interest in West Dunbartonshire's approach.