When politicians claim they are going to eradicate illiteracy, scepticism is a healthy reaction. But when headteachers, teachers and psychologists all say the same thing, as they are now doing in West Dunbartonshire, it pays to listen.
"I think it is realistic and we've made tremendous progress," says headteacher Kathy Morrison.
"It is visionary and ambitious," says psychologist Tommy MacKay, "but the methods are firmly based on research and the results we've been getting are so good that I think it's achievable."
The West Dunbartonshire Literacy Initiative was conceived shortly before the 1997 launch of the Scottish Executive's five-year (initially three-year) early intervention programme to raise literacy and numeracy in infant classes throughout the country. The coincidence was a happy one because early intervention was a key component of the West Dunbartonshire strategy and the injection of Executive support allowed it to be built into the foundations.
The roots of poor reading and illiteracy go deep in areas such as West Dunbartonshire, the second most socially disadvantaged authority in Scotland. International research has established a self-perpetuating cycle of social deprivation leading to illiteracy, leading to further social deprivation when educationally disadvantaged children grow to adulthood.
Research has also shown there is no magic wand to right matters. The link between poverty and educational disadvantage is not only marked, it is also resilient. All over the world initiatives have come and gone; while many have shown immediate gains, virtually all have seen those gains dissipate within a few years of the programme ending. By the mid 1990s it had become apparent that something more than a project with a limited lifespan aimed at a select cohort of young children was needed to effect lasting change.
This was the background to the dawning of West Dunbartonshire's remarkable vision of transforming reading standards "for all children in all schools throughout the education authority".
Dr MacKay, a consultant on the West Dunbartonshire initiative and former president of the British Psychological Society, says: "We knew we could raise literacy levels in the short term in a small sample with a single, brief research intervention. We now intended to raise literacy levels in the long term in a whole population with a multiple, ongoing research intervention."
At this half-way stage of the nominally 10-year project, a hill of papers provides evidence of what has been achieved. Each November since 1997 baseline assessment has been carried out on every West Dunbartonshire child in pre-five, Primary 1 and P2 classes, under four main headings: concepts of print, phonological awareness, early reading skills and developmental tasks. The results show a steady improvement in children's literacy.
On the word reading test, for example, the proportion of children gaining the highest scores has risen from around 5 per cent in 1997 to almost 25 per cent in 2001. More relevant is the proportion of children getting the very lowest scores: this has dropped over the same period from almost three-quarters to less than a third.
Such gains, achieved in just a few years, are extremely impressive, but will they last? A Scottish Executive report on early intervention, published in 2001, stated that "longer-term success is not assured from promising beginnings", and some of the latest West Dunbartonshire figures are beginning to show signs of progress flattening off, which could still leave a significant minority of functionally illiterate children.
So how is the authority going to ensure that the gains already made are consolidated and carried with the children right through their schooling and into adulthood? And can it progress further to eradicate the remaining illiteracy?
Dr MacKay says: "We are looking at how we take forward the next five years starting this month. What we're planning to do, while keeping the early intervention going, is to begin big projects for Primary 3 up to Primary 7. We can now identify from our baselines all the children who are showing signs of becoming reading failures and we are going to tackle every single one of them with intensive help to try to eradicate the problem altogether.
"At the beginning of the project, if you had wanted to take all the children who were failing at reading as they went through primary school and give them the kind of one-to-one intensive help they needed it would, in economic terms, have been absolutely impossible. But because of the success of the early intervention project, the number of children who are turning out to be reading failures has come down to what - as far as we can see - is economically manageable."
This remediation strategy, which goes beyond the scope of early intervention, is the vital second wave of West Dunbartonshire's assault on illiteracy. The third and final push will be directed not at reading skills and knowledge, but at attitudes and values. The motivation goes back to an experiment carried out by Dr MacKay in the mid 1990s.
"With any literacy research, if you don't go on doing it you find it's all washed out and everyone's back in the same position in two or three years," he explains. "But if you somehow managed to change pupils' attitudes and values, rather than just giving them extra reading help, I wondered if you might change something that would have lasting effects."
In an experiment set up to test this idea, through regular sessions aimed at tackling pupils' negative perceptions, the average reading age of the group increased by about a year over the 10-week duration of the project. Five years on there remained a significant difference between their reading abilities and those of the control group. Without further intervention, the gains made had persisted.
The reason, Dr MacKay believes, is almost certainly linked to the connection between poverty and reading failure: "You get poor results in poor areas." Children from regions of social deprivation often have negative views of school, of reading and of teachers.
"The children feel themselves to be in the middle of an alien culture. So, if you could change their attitudes and values so that they started thinking reading was a great idea, I thought you might really make a difference. And that's what happened. We got them to the point where they thought reading was pretty cool and something they wanted to do."
Early Intervention in Literacy and Numeracy by Helen Fraser et al, Scottish Executive Education Department, September 2001
KEYS TO IMPROVING LITERACY
The 10 research-based strands that form the West Dunbartonshire Literacy Initiative are: 1 Phonological awareness and the alphabet
2 A strong and structured phonic emphasis
3 Lessons from research on interactive learning
4 Early identification and support for children who are failing
5 Raising teacher awareness through assessment and target setting
6 Increased time spent on key aspects of reading
7 Extra help in the classroom
8 Enhancing attitudes, values and expectations
9 Fostering a literacy environment in school and the community
10 Home support for encouraging literacy