The quality of teaching has improved in many schools taking part in early intervention schemes, Douglas Osler, senior chief inspector, admits in an HMI report on the first year of the programme in 1997-1998.
"Teachers are more aware of the factors associated with raising standards of attainment in literacy in the early stages of primary school, and pupils, including those in socially disadvantaged areas, are showing signs of improved attainment in literacy," he comments.
Mr Osler says inspectors who reviewed progress in 40 schools found staff committed and enthusiastic. They were willing to learn about new teaching approaches and put them into practice. "In many of the schools visited there was an ethos of achievement at the early stages, where pupils were excited and challenged by learning," he says.
But the chief inspector warns that the findings should be treated cautiously because developments are at an early stage. The precise connections between parts of the early intervention strategies and improved attainment are unclear, and primary schools are using a number of approaches.
The inspectors confirm that most of the first phase of early intervention concentrated on improving literacy.
In the programme's first year, authorities employed an extra 158 nursery nurses, 31 classroom teachers, 69 learning support teachers, 55 classroom assistants, 10 educational psychologists and 37 home-link staff.
Almost all authorities invested heavily in staff development. One council spent only 3 per cent of the new money on training, while another spent 86 per cent. Some 5,600 staff joined early intervention training, and 3,300 opted for further training in special educational needs.
Extra staff were used in a number of ways. There was additional support in P1 and P2 from nursery nurses, classroom assistants and learning support teachers. There were also smaller classes in P1 and extra help in small group work from promoted staff, while senior teachers were given time to monitor progress.
Teachers valued the additional support and were able to "dedicate their teaching to a particular group while other pupils were involved in sustained direct interaction with the support staff."
They allowed teachers to organise pupils into smaller groups for specific learning and were also involved in paired reading. They reinforced vocabulary and worked through phonics and word games. Staff also followed up work with pupils receiving speech and language therapy.
Mike Gibson, lead HMI on early intervention, told last week's national conference: "There was an ethos of achievement at the early stages, a raising of expectations, a buzz, something happening that was not happening prior to the intervention. But there is no evidence of a magic bullet. A combination of factors are going to be needed to raise attainment. It's going to involve parental involvement, staff development, extra staff and support from local authorities."
"Early Intervention 1997-98 - a Report by HM Inspectors of Schools" costs pound;5 from the Stationery Office Bookshop, 71 Lothian Road, Edinburgh EH3 9AZ. Tel: 0870 606 5566
WHERE ATTAINMENT WAS VERY GOOD:
* Teachers had high expectations of pupils and the pace of learning was brisk.
* Pupils were well motivated and enthusiastic about language and number work.
* The quality of dialogue between teachers and individual pupils or groups was high. Pupils talked and listened confidently and concentrated well.
* Pupils responded well to books and stories, showing awareness of the writer's craft.
* Most pupils in P1 knew almost all their sounds and a good number of words by sight.
* Many pupils in P2, and sometimes in P1, could read quite fluently and could independently compose quite substantial stories, making good attempts at accurate spelling and punctuation.