No limits should be set on good ideas. That appears to be the Government's approach to early intervention programmes in primary schools. Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, has increased the funding for projects to Pounds 20 million over three years, with local authorities chipping another Pounds 4 million. He is building not just on experience in areas like Edinburgh's Pilton but also on the decision by the previous Government to encourage national application of local lessons.
The Scottish Office Education and Industry Department budget has been trawled to find more money than Mr Wilson's predecessor was able to commit, but the programme is one which commands universal support. (The only possible dissenters, who know when to keep quiet, are those in secondary or post-school education who worry that more money for primary pupils means less for them. ) Early intervention started in schools where deprivation and family problems brought underachievement from the outset. When the Government became involved, the aim was to seek bids from local authorities which wanted to give extra support to classes in such schools. Mr Wilson's announcement this week signals a change of tack. All authorities are to be given a share of the total budget, calculated on the number of P1 and P2 pupils and augmented for areas with special problems.
But even this extension of the programme will not meet all needs. Only a proportion of schools will benefit from learning support, for example, through a nursery nurse working with a P1 teacher to ensure that all pupils practise reading regularly. The schools chosen will be those with the most acute problems. Yet underachievement is not confined to deprived areas. A study in Moray of all seven primaries linked to Keith Grammar shows a high level of P3 pupils not progressing well in reading.
The message is clear. Strategies shown to work well in selected schools must be applied everywhere. But resources cannot be directed effectively unless needs are analysed and results evaluated. The Government is therefore embarking on a programme by which all P1 pupils will be assessed.
Baseline assessment, as it is called, is a necessary measure if progress is to be charted. It could be miscalled "five-year-old tests" but the Government and teachers alike will hope that emotive terms are avoided. The approach by way of the intervention programme is a subtle one which should improve monitoring of the 5-14 curriculum and, more important, prevent a proportion of pupils falling irredeemably behind. If a child cannot maintain progress in reading, the rest of his education is bound to suffer. Secondary teachers know the consequences for pupils' confidence as well their class marks. It is obvious, however, that if a P1 teacher is to assess all her charges, as well as giving them the best possible start in reading, maths and the rest of the curriculum, she is going to need all the Government's extra cash, and more.