RIGOROUS testing of five-year-olds in Aberdeen is showing for the first time that early intervention in maths and reading can close the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children.
In maths, pupils who enter P1 on clothing grants are rapidly catching up with their better-off peers. Over the last three years, a six point difference has been halved, with a sharp rise in the progress of children from poorer families.
In reading, a gap at the end of P1 of some 26 points between advantaged and disadvantaged has been steadily reduced over the past three years to 17. John Stodter, education director, said the improvement was down to the combination of "robust" assessment from the early days in primary 1 and refined teaching approaches.
"The evidence across the country has always been that pupils who start off well make more progress but for the first time we are seeing a change," Mr Stodter said. "What we have to ask ourselves is whether we can sustain it or is it just a blip?"
The city has been running standardised testing for all P1 and P3 pupils for five years, using the Performance Indicators in Primary Schools (PIPS) materials which are produced and marked by Durham University. The tests are widely used in England and have been adopted by other authorities north of the border.
Aberdeen has been a front-runner and has developed a bank of information which is used to guide teachers in their detailed planning on individual pupils.
City researchers found that teachers have been successful in reducing the gaps in maths scores over the past two years. There is now "no significant difference in the rate of progress in mathematics between children with and without clothing grant", officials point out.
The effect of deprivation on maths scores at the start of P1 has remained constant for three years. But once at school there is now no significant effect on their progress.
In reading, children on clothing grants start with noticeably lower initial scores. But they, too, are moving rapidly to close the gap with their more affluent classmates.
Girls grasp the basics of reading far more quickly and there is no sign that the trend is slowing. Boys continue to make more progress in maths during P1 but the gap with girls is narrowing.
Mr Stodter said the PIPS assessment was crucial. "You can identify early on in P1 the strengths and weaknesses of every pupil. It's having the analytical tools and the staff development behind it in terms of improving teaching and learning."
The difficulty is building on early achievements further up the school. Mr Stodter acknowledges a performance "plateau" in upper primary and early secondary.
Leader, page 26
NOW WE HAVE THE PROOF
"For the first time since the early intervention programme started in Aberdeen, there is evidence that disadvantaged children in primary 1 are making faster progress in reading and mathematics and are closing the gap on their peers. Attainment in reading and mathematics in primary 1 has improved since 1998."