Teacher quality is standards linchpin
Pupils' ability to read and their later success in education may depend as much on the skills of the individual infant teacher as on the extra resources pumped into early intervention, according to test results from the pioneering literacy projects in Edinburgh.
Analysis over several years has revealed substantial differences between individual teachers and confirms what many parents have long suspected: good teachers make a difference, poor teachers hinder progress.
The effectiveness of teachers is "a major factor in pupils' progress", the council study reveals. It has so far had a restricted audience.
"It is often possible to predict likely results simply by knowing which teacher is in charge of a particular class. Some teachers consistently produce excellent results, others consistently produce poor results," the council admits.
In school A, 45 per cent of P1 pupils could only recognise five or fewer letters of the alphabet, against the average for the other three schools of 3.3 per cent. On reading scores, in schools A and B, 82.5 per cent of P1 pupils were reading less than nine words on the Burt Vernon Test compared to 37.5 per cent in the two other schools.
At P2, 10 per cent of pupils were reading above average levels in school B, compared to 62 per cent in the three other schools.
But city schools in heavily disadvantaged areas are now producing literacy results at or above the national average. Primary 1 pupils in the recently inspected Clovenstone primary in the Wester Hailes area were able to read an average of 17.17 words but by March in P2 they could read an average of 36.46. They were therefore reading at a level six months ahead of the British average.
Elizabeth Maginnis, education convener, robustly told Scottish primary heads at their conference two weeks ago resources alone were not the answer. Schools in Wester Hailes and Craigmillar did not have the level of extra funding enjoyed in the Pilton project but produced similar results. Mrs Maginnis attributed this to "more focused teaching".
"It was not just about resources but the way children were taught and the priority classroom teachers give to particular skills in the classroom.
"With very small resources, teachers can create a huge difference," she told heads.
She advised teachers to look closely at what they taught and how they taught it. There had to be a clear commitment to raise standards.
Mrs Maginnis believed target-setting would bring teachers' professional accountability under sharp scrutiny. Individual teachers would not be afforded the anonymity they had in the past. "None of this is going to go away, nor will it be very comfortable," she warned.
Carol Simpson, head of Niddrie Mill primary in Craigmillar, said pupils had made even more progress this year because of the extra Government funding to support a nursery nurse in class. "It's bodies that make a difference," she believes.
The extra adult ensured children's reading was heard daily. However the school has also trained all staff in literacy work and introduced individual target-setting. By the end of P1 pupils should be able to recognise 50 words. "It gives teachers something to bite on," Mrs Simpson said.
She accepted the quality of the teaching staff was "vital".