So what does make the difference when it comes to improving literacy? The Progress In Reading Literacy Study - a five-yearly survey - shows that Hong Kong and Singapore achieved their gains by carrying out reforms in the reading curriculum, instructional materials and teacher education. The home environment also has a major influence, as does the time spent in pre-primary education.
It comes as no surprise that socio-economics has an impact. Yet experience shows that the right approaches can overcome such barriers. The multi-stranded, early intervention approach in West Dunbartonshire has paid dividends. Clackmannanshire's synthetic phonics programme has shown gains for many pupils, if not across the board.
The problem facing those who seek to decode such initiatives is knowing what to measure and what is worth measuring. Sue Ellis, a literacy expert at Strathclyde University, suggests that English policy-makers may have rushed into adopting the Clackmannanshire reading programme without a closer look at wider measures of its success.
In the north, the phonics debate has been more measured, largely because policy areas are devolved to local authorities and not so susceptible to national edict. But Scotland's less than dazzling performance in international terms begs the question whether curriculum development by evolution, rather than revolution, is the most effective response.