Motivation is what counts
Once upon a time an idea arrived in Scotland. The idea was that if you help very young schoolchildren with their reading difficulties, then the difficulties don't grow faster than the child - in fact the child might outgrow the difficulties. People thought it was a good idea, and the idea was sent into four schools and was backed up with some money. Three years later, the idea had grown, and had proved so helpful to the children, their parents and their teachers that the people with the money gave the idea lots more funding and said the idea should travel all over the country and help other children and teachers.
Granton Primary in north Edinburgh, a school of 315 pupils, plus 80 nursery children, is one of the four schools that piloted the early intervention programme in Scotland for three years from 1994. Headteacher Teresa Mooney was not present at the beginning of the programme but she talks enthusiastically about the scheme, and is in no doubt about the reason for its success. "We're very fortunate in the quality of our personnel. It makes all the difference. "
At Granton, two members of staff work specifically on early intervention. Pam Roberts has worked as an infant teacher and learning support teacher at Craigmillar Primary, and realised, when early intervention started, that it was the ideal job for her. She now works on reading recovery, in a one-to-one session with each child for half-an-hour every day over a 10-week period. Half her day is spent at Granton, the other at Craigmillar. She also works on Home Link projects, encouraging parents to become involved with their children's learning.
Her room at Granton is full of photographs of parents and children - painting games on the playground tarmac, learning to use computers, visiting the theatre. Picture-alphabets run along the walls, and books and games sit in piles and boxes on tables and on the floor.
Pam Roberts bubbles over with enthusiasm. She has taken the basic notion of early intervention and has run with it: setting up clubs, producing booklets, making videos - all aimed at increasing the enjoyment and confidence of the children, and involving the parents, wherever possible. "It's a way of trying to reach out to everyone.
"You have to develop a good relationship with the child," Pam Roberts says. "Otherwise the one-to-one can be quite overpowering." Clearly, it is not something she has a problem with. In comes Michael, who at the beginning of term had no reading skills at all. Now, 30 seconds through the door, he waves a wipe-clean doodle-pad at me, "Look, I've written 'see' ". Next he writes the letter "a" and draws an apple next to it. Then he sits down with Pam Roberts and works his way through a reading book.
And the results don't stop at just reading. Inevitably, children who have problems with class work often have associated behavioural problems and limited concentration. But if you remove the source of frustration - the inability to read - then the behavioural problems quite often disappear. Michael, says Pam Roberts, is a case in point. He has, quite simply, blossomed.
The secret, she explains, is a multi-sensory approach and a wide variety of activities in each session. She uses chalk, magnetic letters, anything that will encourage the child to "feel" the letters. She makes a lot of her own materials. The children all have individual printed booklets with their names on that are tailored exactly to their needs. She has made picture cards for rhyming games; coloured cards with parts of words on them that can be slotted into a plastic board to make up complete words and phrases. Everything is aimed at motivating and stimulating the children - making the lessons fun, with a very strong sense that the more the children learn the more fun they will have.
Across the corridor from Pam Roberts is Joyce Ager's room. It is a magical place. Cardboard and paper mobiles hang in the doorway; books stand open, asking to be picked up and looked at; colourful games cover the floor and the tables; the walls are invisible under a gallery of children's drawings. One, low down near the door, reads, "I love Mrs Ager".
Joyce Ager is a nursery nurse who worked at the Granton nursery and jumped at the chance to follow her young charges further up the school. "A lot of them have grey lives: grey houses, grey backyards. They have a thousand and one problems to deal with," she says. She tells how, when she first sits down beside some of the children to look at a book with them or help them play a game, they look up at her in confusion. No adult has ever shown an interest in their activities before.
Children come here in groups of five or six. One reads quietly to Joyce Ager while the others play games with letters and pictures, or slot together the alphabet jigsaw. The atmosphere is calm, quiet, happy. I ask two pupils if they like coming here. "Yes," says one. "Our proper teacher shouts." With class sizes as they are, who can blame her?
There is no doubt that the early intervention programme is a delight for the teachers as much as the pupils. Working with small numbers, able to see rapid improvement and to develop a caring relationship with the children and their families - it is what primary teaching is meant to be all about.
Perhaps that is the greatest strength of this programme. It allows good teachers to do what they are good at. Instead of spending the day bogged down by administration and distracted by keeping order in the classroom, these two teachers have been allowed to create an environment that matches the needs of the children. It is as flexible and responsive as they are.