With significant numbers of pupils struggling with speech and writing, staff at Ysgol Llwyn Yr Eos in Aberystwyth decided to take radical action - implementing a synthetic phonics programme at a cost of more than pound;30,000.
Three years on, the school says the scheme has led to impressive results, not only improving pupil literacy but also increasing staff confidence and building stronger links with parents.
Llwyn Yr Eos is one of a growing number of primaries prepared to pay for phonics schemes. With literacy set to become a bigger focus under the new Estyn framework coming into effect in September, others could be encouraged to follow its example.
But the shift in focus comes as schools prepare for increasingly tight budgets.
A spending review by PricewaterhouseCoopers published last month warned that the education sector will struggle to deal with public sector spending cuts due to hit Wales in 2011.
But in a time of austerity, should schools invest their money in phonics?
Although Llwyn Yr Eos is a mainstream primary, it has four units for children with additional educational needs and 65 per cent of its 200 pupils are on the special-needs register.
Many of its pupils also come from poor homes, with 38 per cent entitled to free school meals.
"We have always faced significant challenges as a result of both special needs and deprivation, particularly with speech and language development," said headteacher Brian Evans.
"In 2006, we started looking for a literacy scheme to help us improve and took both of those factors into account."
The school decided on the Read Write Inc programme, developed in 2001 by a former headteacher, Ruth Miskin. It is used in more than 3,000 schools across the UK and internationally, including around 100 primaries in Wales.
There is no shortage of other options for schools wanting to pay for phonics. Other schemes include Jolly Phonics, Lesley Clarke Synthetic Phonics and Letterland.
Llwyn Yr Eos received a pound;14,000 Raise grant in 2007 to improve literacy. It spent pound;2,500 on a two-day training scheme and around pound;5,000 on resources and materials. The rest went on supplementing the pay of two additional teachers employed to help deliver the programme.
The school received further pound;10,000 grants the following two years, which were spent on additional training and staff costs.
The scheme was launched in September 2007, just six weeks before Estyn inspectors were due.
"Although the timing was tight we decided to go for it and it paid off," said Mr Evans.
"It was important for us that it didn't come across as something we were doing just for the inspection. It had to be child-led and teachers had to see how they were going to benefit.
"I was quite surprised how quickly and how well they picked it up. Within a term we were able to achieve progress and the inspectors were very congratulatory about it."
Four hours of the school timetable is set aside every week, with pupils split into 13 separate groups. All pupils take part, not just those with special needs, and the content is taught to each pupil's literacy level.
But despite the number of schools now using synthetic phonics, the programme has met with only lukewarm support from the Assembly government.
A spokesman said that while phonics should be included in a range of strategies to teach reading, they should not be used exclusively. "There is, therefore, no specific funding allocated for phonics teaching," he said.
Estyn chief inspector Ann Keane has also urged caution. "They (phonics programmes) should only be part of a reading scheme," she told TES Cymru. "I'm not in favour of just having a phonics-based reading scheme that does not deliver comprehension skills."
David Egan, professor of education at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, agreed that phonics are one way of improving literacy.
But, he warned: "Quite often when there are literacy problems teachers look for a `magic bullet' like phonics that will solve everything.
"It's not the scheme itself that produces the outcomes; it's the commitment to tackle the problem and the hard work of those delivering it."
But criticism does not dent Mr Evans' enthusiasm. Before the introduction of synthetic phonics, only a handful of his pupils achieved average or above-average scores in reading tests. Now at least a third of pupils in each class - and in some classes, half of the pupils - make the grade.
"We have seen children who have moved on in years in their reading age," said Mr Griffiths. "They have improved to the point that far fewer children are on the higher stages of the SEN register."
`SEAMLESS TRANSITION' TO SECONDARY
Although phonics programmes are usually used in primary schools, Caldicot School in Monmouthshire launched a pilot for 100 struggling secondary pupils earlier this year.
Shane Mock, assistant headteacher, said: "A number of pupils, particularly boys, were lagging behind in their speech and writing.
"The scheme was in full swing in our feeder primaries so we decided to launch a 12-week pilot because it would fit with the work they had done previously and help provide a seamless transition."
Mr Mock said the majority of pupils have shown a "significant improvement" in their reading ability and comprehension skills, which had previously been holding them back from accessing the full curriculum.
Next September's Year 7 intake will go straight into 12 weeks of the course, while any struggling Year 8 pupils will be given extra help.
HOW IT WORKS
- Read Write Inc was developed by former headteacher Ruth Miskin, who has advised the Westminster government on literacy and contributed to the Rose review of the primary curriculum.
- It is based on the premise that children learn most effectively when modelling words.
- There are four components: comprehension, comprehension plus, spelling, and an intervention programme called Fresh Start.
- The programme teaches 36 sounds, which are presented through flashcards (see picture, above left) as phrases before being used in reading activities.
- Pupils do much of the work in partnership, helping one another develop.
Original print headline: The pound;30k 3-year phonics programme that paid off