The writing's on the wall
Early intervention is high on the political agenda, as authorities around Scotland wait to hear in the next week whether they have struck lucky with their bids for a portion of the Scottish Office's Pounds 7 million of grants for basic literacy and numeracy projects in the coming year.
Among them is Dundee City Council, which has for some time had a strong commitment to raising the quality of Primary 1 teaching and learning. In August last year the council launched READ (Raising Early Achievement in Dundee) - a two-year pilot project focused initially on the improvement of literacy in P1 pupils.
Because of the bleak correlation between educational under-achievement and socio-economic disadvantage, READ was launched in 10 primary schools in areas of social disadvantage. Against a backdrop of school closures in the city, the project was designed to inject a new sense of purpose into the teaching of reading skills.
As Christine Rioch, assistant adviser for early years, is keen to explain, READ is a policy which offers scope for teachers to re-think their basic strategies in the teaching of reading and writing. Based on five key principles, it is about altering attitudes and does not offer prescriptive formulae.
The key principles ask teachers to stop and re-consider their expectations and practice, to value those which are successful and to broaden their approach in the classroom. The principles are steeped in positive language: "enrich the oral curriculum"; "support and promote"; "offer access to"; "value the literacy knowledge."
The cynic will say there's nothing new in any of this. Those in the READ project agree, but insist nevertheless that revitalised attitudes to, for instance, the parents' role in developing a child's reading, will breed new success. This has proved to be of particular importance in areas of social disadvantage where parents tend to underrate their own role in learning.
In terms of staffing, the READ project dovetails neatly with Dundee's commitment to providing a continuity from nursery through to early primary. It is a key element of the project that one of each school's nursery nurses, in addition to the P1 teacher, participates in the READ in-service programme, preparing her to work full-time in the P1 class, team teaching with the class teacher.
The in-service programme is delivered by Dundee's Educational Development Service and the Northern College. The joint training between primary and nursery forms one of the main foundations of the project. Nursery nurses move into the primary classroom, bringing many of their ideas with them.
With another key aim being to build confidence and enthusiasm in teachers as well as pupils, Christine Rioch confirms the success of this in the in-service programme. She says that nursery nurses "have added a dimension to this project that has far exceeded our expectations".
At Sidlawview primary (a recent merger of West March and Gillburn primaries) in the Kirkton area of the city, READ is now up and running. As a large merged campus of approximately 400 pupils, Sidlawview has the highest number of clothing grants and free school meals in the city's primary schools. If statistical evidence is to be believed, then it's to be expected that pupils in the school's P1 class will be struggling with the basics of early literacy.
But first impressions of the classroom raise doubts about this. Instead of the usual predominance of pictures on the wall, there is an orderly profusion of words: names of animals, months of the year, alphabet sounds and names, children's stories and labelled pictures, printed posters, reference lists of same sound words and many others. The quiet suggests that many children are either writing or choosing to read.
Closer examination of their work and a talk with them discloses carefully written little stories which they had a personal reason for writing. The boy who wrote "the dog chases butterflies" explains that he did not want the dog chasing cats (a nice easy word to spell), because "dogs just don't". They show a keenness to spell "their" words correctly, and confidently ask both Jan Smith, the teacher, and Sue Tosh, the nursery nurse, for guidance.
Here the classroom environment virtually takes over from the teaching staff. On asking for help, children are directed to an appropriate reference area: wall, book, poster, word list to find out the spelling for themselves. They are clearly used to the system and on a number of occasions another child intervenes and offers to help his class-mate by directing her to the appropriate place - and notably not by spelling the word.
There is much controlled chatter in the room, but mostly about the content of their stories - who has a dog, whose granny's dog has just died, or who just can't have a dog in their wee flat. Then there is the reading. A constant troop into the cosy reading corner with requests for stories to be read is a measure of its popularity. What is remarkable is the way the children want to participate and try reading pages of quite difficult and unusual read-aloud story books. They are keen to express opinions on the works of particular writers and artists.
With such enthusiastic learning going on in her classroom, teacher Jan Smith is keen to stress how much READ has enabled her to re-think her teaching strategies. In particular, to value the children's own language shown in their writing or the excited telling of personal stories. She gives special credit to the quality of the in-service programme.
But it is nursery nurse Sue Tosh who best sums up the success of READ at Sidlawview. Having initially been regarded by the children as "just from the nursery", she has now "earned" equal status with her colleague. She enjoys "a new sense of achievement" in her work through the achievement of the children and clearly relishes the new training opportunities.
Half-way through its pilot phase, the READ project is making its mark. The Educational Development Service in Dundee hopes that its bid for funding will secure the future development of this early intervention initiative.
For further information contact: Christine Rioch, Educational Development Service, Dundee City Council, Gardyne Road, Dundee DD5 1NY. Tel: 01382 462857