Sheila Wearmouth knows which phonics system works best for her pupils. The head of pre-prep at Kingshott preparatory school, Hertfordshire, understands that her pupils arrive with a range of reading experience, so the school has compiled its own reading programme that blends synthetic and analytic phonics to ensure all children start from scratch.
Now, the Government has proposed a quality-assurance panel to vet phonics schemes. Those which meet pre-approved standards will be published in an official list.
The criteria each programme must meet have been sent to publishers and literacy consultants for approval. Feedback will be collated by November 1 and the final version will be announced in December or early January, along with the members selected for the panel.
Mrs Wearmouth will not submit her school's phonics programme to the panel.
"If the panel don't approve, then we've got a negative mark against it,"
she said. "But our scheme is unique and specific to us and suits the kinds of pupils who come to our school. We know our intake and we know what works for them."
Kingshott, a private school, has the luxury of being able to choose the methods that work best for pupils. "In state schools, inspectors might say, 'You're not using an approved system,'" said Mrs Wearmouth. "It takes quite a confident, well-established state school head to stand up to this. I think it's another way of taking away initiative in the classroom."
The Government wants specific guidelines on the way phonics should be taught. Its draft quality-assurance criteria propose that each programme should be "centred on a synthetic approach to blending phonemes in order all through a word to read it, and segmenting words into their constituent phonemes to spell it".
This approach was recommended by Jim Rose in his review of how reading is taught, published earlier this year. But Ruth Kelly, then Education Secretary, insisted this method would not be dictated to all schools. She said: "Cohorts of clones reciting synthetic phonics ignores the different ways that children learn."
Sue Palmer, a literacy consultant, agrees that teachers should be allowed to select the method that works best. "What works for one person isn't necessarily what works for another," she said. "This is simply about trusting teachers. There's no magic bullet in education."
Graham Taylor, director of educational, academic and professional publishing for the Publishers' Association, has written a response to the Government's draft criteria. He said: "We're not opposed in principle to the quality assurance scheme, but it will have an impact on the market. So if it is done, it has to be done well."
But others believe the system is not without merit. The National Union of Teachers says teachers will not feel compelled to use phonics programmes approved by the Government.
An NUT spokeswoman said: "Teachers have a lot of work to do, so many will find guidance on reading schemes helpful. But the suggestion of anything punitive if they did not follow the guidance would certainly be taken very seriously."
THE CREAM OF THE SCHEMES
Used by about 68 per cent of primaries, this is the best-known commercial phonics package.
The pound;154 scheme uses a picture, story and song to represent each letter sound. Each sound is also represented by a simple hand action, so "s" is a snake movement and "sh" is a finger to the lips.
Developed by Ruth Miskin, an east London head, ReadWrite Inc presents sounds on flashcards before using them in reading. Activities include a puppet, Fred, who can only say word sounds one at a time, and phrases such as "poo at the zoo" which children find memorable. www.readwriteinc.com
This scheme uses pictograms to represent letters of the alphabet, so "c" is represented by Clever Cat and "s" by Sammy Snake. Characters are shaped in the form of the letter. Characters meet to form two-letter sounds. For example, Hairy Hat shushes Sammy Snake, creating "sh".
In this phonics packege, cubes representing sounds can be fitted together together to make up words, colour-coded to differentiate between vowels and consonants. The idea is to encourage children to play, literally, with sounds. www.philipandtacey.co.ukspsyntheticphonix.htm