Research published in The TES this week shows that the benefits of Reading Recovery - the scheme which targets six-year-old struggling readers - last until the end of primary school.
Two Birmingham researchers studied ex-Reading Recovery pupils and a control group in Australia and New Zealand schools where the scheme has been entrenched for an average of eight years. They found that by age 10 to 11 the Recovery group had outstripped their peers.
"Compared with children whose reading difficulties at six had been less severe, the ex-Recovery children were superior in reading accuracy, in understanding what they had read, and in writing narrative," say Dr Barrie Wade of Birmingham University and Dr Maggie Moore of Newman College, Birmingham.
"They read slightly more and had more positive attitudes to reading and more independent strategies for making sense of text."
The Tories launched the scheme with Pounds 3 million in grants to 20 local authorities in the run-up to the 1992 general election, but systematic funding ended after its three-year pilot. The Tories are now trumpeting their National Literacy Project.
Reading Recovery now runs in 30 local authorities, financed by local authorities or with help from the Single Regeneration Budget.
Labour broadly supports the scheme. Michael Barber, chair of Labour's Literacy Task Force, said: "It's very encouraging to see the long-term benefits of Reading Recovery."
His task force's interim report found a "powerful case for investing in Reading Recovery on the grounds that prevention is better than cure". However, a major expansion might not be possible "until economic growth brings additional funds into education", it adds.
Angela Hobsbaum, a national co-ordinator for Reading Recovery in the UK, based at the University of London, says 12 to 15 LEAs are still getting some money from the SRB or Northern Ireland's Peace and Reconciliation fund. Last year, 4,500 children from about 700 schools went through the programme, which gives them one-to-one tuition by specially-trained teachers for 12 to 20 weeks. She found Wade and Moore's research encouraging.
"I think it shows what can be achieved when the classroom programmes support the gains that the children make through Reading Recovery tuition," she said. The biggest challenge was to make sure that ordinary classroom reading programmes helped maintain Reading Recovery gains.
Recent research has produced mixed findings about the programme. A Northern Ireland study published this month on the province's first two cohorts found that Reading Recovery pupils from disadvantaged areas were more likely to slip back within a year of completing the programme than their wealthier peers - although its authors, from Queen's University, believe this was due to weaknesses in mainstream teaching. One 1995 study from New South Wales, Australia, found that a third of pupils had not improved six months afterwards.
But research commissioned by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority published in 1995 showed that poor children benefited particularly. And Ken Rowe, from Melbourne University, found that ex-Reading Recovery pupils were "average" compared to all pupils later in primary school.
* Opinion, page 22
* reading recovery, Primary Pre-School, TES2 page 13