Pioneering research at a Strathclyde primary school could provide teachers with a new tool for literacy among socially and economically disadvantaged children.
The "ground-breaking" study by Dunbarton West psychologists is taking place at Edinbarnet primary in Faifley, the most socially disadvantaged school in the area. Using a sample of 48 primary 1 pupils, including 12 with severe learning difficulties, it aims to show that with a relatively low budget of pound;5,000 huge leaps can be made in reading skills by focusing on children's attitude towards school.
The project will use a range of methods, including extra tuition, combined with structured play and home visits, to boost self-esteem, reinforce the importance of school and impress on children the value of being able to read.
Working from the premise that reading failure is not due to intellectual or linguistic deficiencies, but a mismatch between the values of two cultures - the school and the deprived neighbourhood - researchers hope to build on the successes of an earlier study at Edinbarnet with eight-year-olds .
A large proportion of the children made advances in reading skills of up to a year, after just 10 weeks. Tommy MacKay, Dunbarton West's principal psychologist, notes that the project cost just pound;1,000, in contrast to the "massive funding" for Lothian's early reading project in Pilton, Edinburgh.
Mr MacKay says: "Our previous research was designed to change the children's attitudes towards themselves and the education system. In getting a positive shift of attitudes and values, we found we achieved big shifts in reading ability. The key element of our approach is to change the way people work with children, so that they are aware that attitudes and values are an issue that can be addressed. Reading failure is not just something to do with the curriculum or lack of educational opportunity, but significantly it is to do with social and cultural values regarding school."
If the findings at Edinbarnet fulfil expectations, Mr MacKay says that education authorities will be helped to target scarce resources where they can reap maximum benefits. That will be good news for schools like Edinbarnet, which despite serving areas with deep social problems, do not benefit from Strathclyde's area of priority treatment scheme.
Of the 9,000 people living in the Faifley housing scheme on the edge of Auchnacraig Country Park, some 22 per cent of the men are jobless. Crime, vandalism and drug abuse are rife. A profile of the school reveals seemingly overwhelming social disadvantage. Around 60.2 per cent of the 312 pupils receive free school dinners and 68.1 per cent receive clothing grants. Just under a third are from single-parent families.
Shona Carmichael, the headteacher, says that many pupils arrive unable to recognise letters or understand sounds. "The children have a lack of stories, lack of nursery rhymes, they have speech problems because they have not had a lot of conversation at home. Many have not had books read to them. But they are television experts," she says. She hopes the study will bring gains by "deluging the children with language". The extra classroom helpers, two nursery nurses, will be a major bonus.
"I will do anything to get extra staff," Mrs Carmichael says. She initiated the study, the third in as many years, by asking Strathclyde if Edinbarnet "could be a Pilton". A similar determination secured Edinbarnet the accolade of becoming the first primary school in Scotland to achieve the Investors In People quality standard.
During the study all primary 1 pupils will have extra phonological lessons to strengthen their basic pre-reading background using play and nursery rhymes. Extra attention will focus on the bottom quarter of children with team work aimed at boosting self-esteem and positive attitudes towards learning. Home visits will encourage parental involvement.
Pre-testing, to establish attitudes and literacy levels, was completed in January and will be compared with two unnamed schools of similar background. The tests have not yet been analysed, but the earlier study showed that by the age of eight some pupils already viewed school as "a waste of time" and "a place where I only ever seem to get into trouble".
"My honest feeling is that unless we help children when they are in the infant department to catch up with literacy skills, then it will follow them throughout their school life," Mrs Carmichael says.