Scottish primary schools have effectively been told to introduce baseline testing for five-year-olds.The move attracted little attention as it accompanied the announcement of increased funding for the Government's early intervention programme.
The Scottish Office has told education authorities that it intends to work with them collectively to develop a co-ordinated approach to assessment during the early years.
Its letter to councils adds that ministers "strongly hope" that authorities which have already made significant progress with baseline testing will help to pilot and disseminate different approaches.
The ostensible purpose is to keep a check on the progress of the early intervention programme, now worth #163;24 million over the next three years against the previous government's initial #163;9m. But baseline assessment also serves the wider agenda of providing evidence for the value-added performance of primary schools.
Although not all primaries will be involved in the programme, intended to boost literacy and numeracy skills in P1 and P2, experts believe others cannot remain untouched by the scheme's approach.
Ian Glen, curriculum advice manager in Edinburgh which will target a quarter of its 103 primaries, said: "We will expect all schools to follow early intervention principles so that, for example, learning support focuses on P1 and P2. This approach then becomes a way of thinking not just a way of funding".
The expanded scheme was launched on Monday by Brian Wilson, the education minister, at Granton primary in Edinburgh. It is one of the four primaries which has been pioneering intensive literacy and numeracy support over the past three years with pre-school and P1-P3 children, producing dramatic improvements.
Mr Wilson announced that the Scottish Office had been able to find another #163;7m for the programme. This brings the Government's contribution to #163;20m over three years, including #163;1m specifically earmarked for staff training in special educational needs. The local authorities will chip in another #163;4m but will have to pick up the full bill at the end of the three years.
All 32 authorities will now receive a share of the funds, ranging from #163;105,000 for Orkney to #163;1.9m for Glasgow. This is a departure from the original plan which asked authorities to bid against a restricted sum of #163;300,000 each, benefitting only a few.
But the Scottish Office letter to the councils concedes that "the distribution of resources by bidding may exclude authorities which had been able to demonstrate a need to raise standards". The money has now been allocated in line with the number of P1 and P2 children in each authority, augmented for areas where there are particularly high levels of underachievement.
Mr Wilson said he was "in no doubt this is an effective way of achieving tangible results on a measurable timescale to the immense benefit of all the children concerned".
Greg MacMillan, the educational psychologist in Edinburgh who has been a pivotal figure in the success of the Pilton early intervention programme, says the evaluation of this year's group of pupils would show even better results than last year's since the effect of progress is cumulative.
Next year's performance should be higher still as it will assess the first pupils to come through the four years of the programme. The key achievement has been the number of pupils in one of Scotland's most deprived communities who are reading above their chronological age, Mr MacMillan says. "That means a lot less trouble for everyone else, not least the learning support teacher, " he adds.
Mary Monaghan, the learning support teacher at Granton Primary, says the most effective move was deploying a nursery nurse in the early years who had time to hear the children reading every day, playing with them on related activities and reinforcing their work. "This then relieves the teachers who can concentrate on those who do fall behind," she says.
Additional nursery nurses, class teachers, learning support staff and classroom assistants are all eligible items of expenditure under the programme.
Authorities will also be able to use the money to employ more psychologists and home-school link personnel as well as cover the costs of staff development in literacy and numeracy.
Up to 10 per cent of the funds can be spent on classroom materials and evaluating progress.
The Scottish Office intends to take the lead in co-ordinating staff training in literacy and numeracy, appointing a national development officer to assist authorities. The programme's overall effectiveness will be judged by a two-year HMI study and by a research project.
The need for action was demonstrated this week by a report from Moray, which will receive a grant of #163;307,500. Testing of pupils in the seven primaries associated with Keith Grammar, which will be targeted initially, found that only 47 per cent of P3 pupils had achieved level A in reading last year; 18 per cent did not reach level A until P4 or later when the 5 to 14 guidelines suggest most should be at level B.
Clackmannan meanwhile is vesting considerable hopes in a collaboration with St Andrews University to pilot "synthetic phonics" with pupils in four of its primaries. Officials have been impressed by the approach following a trial in one English authority which found that none of the children who took part tested as low achievers - whereas 26 per cent of pupils who continued to use traditional methods turned in low scores.
The technique emphasises accelerated letter learning with immediate word-making skills taught following each group of six letters. Clackmannan believes the 40-plus sounds of the English language can be taught in 10 weeks, as children learn to write the letter combinations.