On the face of it, the government's decision to remove the "Letters and Sounds" handbook from its list of "validated" phonics teaching programmes next year could be viewed as a minor policy tweak.
After all, the Department for Education has said schools can continue to use the 2007 handbook regardless of its official endorsement – or lack thereof – in perpetuity, unless they are part of an English hub.
And the DfE has stressed that Ofsted does "not have a preferred programme or approach" when it comes to inspecting phonics teaching.
But some experts fear there is far more to this move than meets the eye – with school budgets under threat and a rise in teacher workload on the horizon.
Between 2010 and 2014, the DfE collated a set of phonics teaching programmes to help schools choose the right course for them. Publishers could apply to have their programme featured through either a "self-assessment process" or by submitting a tender to feature in the DfE's "Importance of Phonics" catalogue.
Phonics teaching: What's happening to 'Letters and Sounds'?
The list of self-assessed programmes included the department's own "Letters and Sounds" handbook, published in 2007.
The DfE has now decided to refresh the selection by inviting all systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) programmes to apply for validation. The result will be one list of complete programmes that meet "agreed, revised core criteria".
But, as it turns out, "Letters and Sounds" will not make the cut.
This is because it is not a "full" systematic synthetic phonics programme, the DfE said.
In a blog published last month, in answer to the question: "What's changed – is there something wrong with 'Letters and Sounds' 2007?", the department explained that it "isn't a full SSP programme because it doesn't provide the support, guidance, resources or training needed".
"It relies on schools building a programme of resources around the handbook and, in many cases, updating the progression to bring it in line with current best practice," the DfE added.
A 'comprehensive' package
But in the opinion of Sue Allingham, an early years consultant, this is a "very hollow argument".
"The 'Letters and Sounds' package is very comprehensive so I'm really not convinced by the argument that there is no support, guidance or resources," she tells Tes.
"I'm sitting here looking at them now," she says. "They might have [a] point about training – I don't know how many [local authorities] now offer it, but it is so embedded in schools now that the practice is just handed on."
And the DfE has acknowledged that the programme can yield excellent results.
The department said some schools had built resources around the handbook, and updated them in line with best practice, "very successfully".
"It was for this reason that schools achieving strong results using 2007 'Letters and Sounds' were included in the English hubs programme in 2018," it said.
Ruth Swailes, an early years consultant, has witnessed schools achieving top marks using the handbook first-hand.
She tells Tes: "A lot of my schools that are doing really, really well with phonics actually use 'Letters and Sounds'. Some of them are sort of getting scores in the 90s, the 95s, and they are really quite anxious about this [change], understandably.
"If it's working in schools, and they're getting good results, why change it?"
'No evidence' of superior phonics option
Jo Taylor, a lecturer in language and cognitive development at UCL, believes that, from a "research perspective", there is not "any real reason to recommend not using 'Letters and Sounds' versus anything else".
"There's no evidence that one or other programme is better or that that programme is not as good," she says.
"I would say the only difference is a practical one, that schools might choose to buy a programme because it gives them a more explicit kind of week-by-week thing to follow."
And Laura Shapiro, a children's language and literacy development specialist from Aston University in Birmingham, also feels that all of the phonics programmes in the current DfE selection, including "Letters and Sounds", "cover the core phonics principles, and can be used effectively in schools".
She explains that the main difference between the DfE handbook and the commercial programmes is that it "doesn't come in a 'package' with training, and an associated set of books".
"This means that schools need support to implement it and teachers need to put some thought into which books children can read depending on their phonics knowledge," she says.
But Ms Shapiro adds this can actually be a "better" scenario, so long as schools "have the resources to provide a choice of attractive books for different levels".
She says: "There isn't clear evidence of an advantage of particular books [such as decodable books or particular reading schemes] and so as long as the books are at an appropriate reading level, the main consideration is enjoyment, ideally giving children choice so they can select books they find interesting and attractive."
Ms Shapiro says the remaining validated programmes are "attractive" because they are designed to be "really systematic and consistent", and that if schools need a "complete overhaul of their phonics teaching" then the commercial options would be a "safe bet".
But she argues that it would also be "perfectly feasible" to update the "Letters and Sounds" resources, and then "provide training and support to ensure schools are well-equipped to deliver this".
A steer towards other phonics resources?
While the DfE has said schools do not have to stop using the "Letters and Sounds" handbook "now, or at all", with her "cynical hat" on, Dr Allingham anticipates "an active move towards leaning on everyone to drop it".
The department has said "Letters and Sounds" will remain on the validated list until spring 2022. And even then, there will be no requirement for schools to ditch it.
The exception is for those who are receiving support from an English hub. For these schools, following a programme on the DfE list is mandatory.
"If your school uses its own approach based around 'Letters and Sounds' 2007 which includes appropriate resources, has decodable books matched to pupils' phonic knowledge, high-quality staff training and achieves strong results, there is no need to change approach," the DfE said.
"Schools should check that the approach taken is sustainable and works for all children, including the most disadvantaged."
But Dr Allingham says this phrasing indicates to her that "a blow is being softened and a way will be found to encourage all schools to change".
"I really think that this is totally unnecessary change because what is there is working perfectly well," she says.
"I am already aware of schools panicking about what they should do instead, and it is difficult to reassure them that they can keep 'Letters and Sounds' if it works for them. I can see a future where certain schemes are pushed."
And Ms Swailes has sensed a similar reaction from the schools on her radar.
"People just haven't factored it in," she says.
"They set their budgets in March, not knowing this was coming – it came on 1 April, and now they're panicking and thinking that 'I've got to find funding for training, for resources, for time, for staff'.
"I think it's that anxiety that worries me more than anything. It's just this underlying feeling that…well, they say it's a choice but actually, is it?"
More work for teachers?
Ms Swailes fears that encouraging schools to swap to a new programme could place a huge burden on staff at an already stressful time.
"From the heads that I speak to there are concerns about workload issues, particularly now they've invested a huge amount of time in levelling their books and making it work," she says.
"You can't just take another scheme and introduce it – that requires a lot of training so staff are confident, and that requires time. So that, in the middle of a pandemic, is an anxiety."
Despite the DfE's reassurance that Ofsted does "not have a preferred programme or approach" when it comes to phonics, one early years specialist tells Tes that they fear "Letters and Sounds" may still be blamed if schools see a dip in performance.
"My anxiety is...I'm just thinking of very small schools where your results can peak and trough – if you've only got sort of 10 or 15 children in a cohort, you can literally go from having 100 per cent to having 50 per cent if you've got high level of special needs or whatever," they said.
"My concern is that a school might be using it very, very effectively, have a bit of a bad year, get an Ofsted and get criticised because they're using 'Letters and Sounds'. And it could be used as a stick to beat them with.
"That, for me, from conversations that I'm having with headteachers, is the key anxiety, that, 'We're alright now, we've got some good results, we've got years and years of them, but what if Ofsted come in a year when we dip, and they say, 'Well that's because you're using 'Letters and Sounds'?"
Critics of the decision to drop the handbook have also pointed to the fact that it is the only non-commercial resource on the current list.
Elaine Bennett, a Reception teacher with more than 20 years' experience, says: "'Letters and Sounds' was a free document, whereas all of these ones that meet the accredited [criteria]...are more than likely sold by private companies."
And Dr Allingham also warns that diverting schools away from the handbook "will result in massive financial outlay from budgets that are already tight".
Letters and Sounds: Not the only free option
It is worth noting that, while "Letters and Sounds" is the only non-commercial resource, it is not the only free option.
The "Phonics International" programme developed by former teacher Debbie Hepplewhite is another "validated" DfE resource that has been free to access since January 2021.
But Ms Swailes points out: "Even if you do something that is free – so if they do use 'Phonics International', for example – that will still require people to be out of class for training…it's time."
So why would the DfE want schools to drop the handbook, or push for alternatives?
Again with her "cynical hat" on, Dr Allingham believes the decision is about "money and control".
As the DfE has outlined, "Letters and Sounds" is not a "full" SSP programme. It "relies on schools building a programme of resources around the handbook".
Could the decision to remove it from the validated list therefore be a veiled attempt to clamp down on schools' flexibility when it comes to teaching phonics?
Ms Bennett fears moves towards more "prescriptive" programmes could end up "deskilling" teachers.
"We are a really skilled sector; we know how young children learn," she says.
"'Letters and Sounds' has always been quite a good skeleton, really, that you can then build upon. I think that at the moment there seems to be a definite move towards more and more kind of prescriptive, scheme-based approaches, not just in phonics.
"And I think that, actually, if you're not careful, you end up deskilling teachers."
She adds: "I think that what is really missing is the understanding that we do know children and we do know how to teach.
"There's a big focus from the DfE on fidelity and sticking to one scheme, and I think it is important that we're consistent, but I think it's also important that we start with the child and we make sure that whatever we're giving them in terms of phonics actually meets their needs, and isn't just us reading through a handbook.
"We need to know what we are doing works for our children. It engages them and enables them to succeed."