The Government had decided to spend #163;20 million on early intervention schemes over the next three years before Edinburgh revealed the latest findings from the pioneering project in Pilton primaries. The initial success in bringing on poor readers which led to the extension of the scheme and to the interest of the previous government as well as its successor has proved only the beginning of the story. The latest findings show that not only are there far fewer slow readers at primary 3 but a healthy percentage are performing above the norm for their age, whereas five years ago none were.
The Government's act of faith in committing extra money should pay off. It was spurred not just by the Edinburgh experiment and the enthusiasm of Elizabeth Maginnis, the convener of education and a leading light in the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. It also reflects a widespread belief that resources have to be committed to the first years of school. That was the contention of the National Commission a few years ago and it was taken up by Labour.
The commission also focused on class sizes, and Labour went into the election pledged to reduce young primary classes to 30. The policy was determined by conditions south of the border where there is no contractual maximum as there is with Scotland's 33. Therefore the impact of the new limit, if it can be universally introduced, will be less here. But it will not come without its price, as a TES Scotland survey shows. Reducing class sizes means that in some schools more must be created. That entails employing extra teachers and may pose problems of accommodation.
Yet many pupils are in classes substantially below the current maximum. It can be argued that the Government is taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It is imposing a resources burden on councils which, left to their own decision, might use extra money in a different way.
Despite the lack of research evidence to link small class sizes to better pupil performance, common sense (and teachers' well-being) suggest that fewer pupils must make for closer attention to individual needs and thence better learning. The question is whether the youngest children need the smallest classes. Early intervention strategies depend on availability of adults in class. Listening to and encouraging reading are the key. But the extra adults need not necessarily be teachers. In other words, their introduction into a class, although not without cost, need not be part of the debate about pupil-teacher ratio.
From higher up the primary there is another claim. The manifold demands of the 5-14 curriculum pose special challenges when the nature of the work becomes more complex. Many a primary 7 pupil's knowledge and curiosity can easily test to destruction a teacher's grasp of science and technology. Confidence in these areas of 5-14, which the Scottish Council for Research in Education showed was not high four years ago, has only slightly increased. Modern languages are another challenge to the class teacher.
A P7 class where almost all of the work is at 5-14 levels D and E is easier to organise than one with a long "tail". Facility in reading boosts overall performance and if early intervention helps achieve that, there will be benefits throughout primary and into secondary. That said, all seven primary years make their own extensive and expensive demands.