In the debate on literacy at primary schools, synthetic phonics is considered by many to be a key battleground. The media often portrays supporters and opponents of the emotive teaching technique as, respectively, traditionalists committed to driving up standards or left-wingers wedded to some imagined "progressive" philosophy from the 1980s.
The fact that almost every primary in the country is already dedicated to phonics did not stop schools minister Nick Gibb berating heads and local authorities last week for failing to take up an offer of match-funding to buy phonics schemes and training from a catalogue approved by the government.
Department for Education mandarins also published two lists, one of 10 local authorities with low take-up and low reading results and another of 10 authorities with high take-up and high reading results.
"This (the match-funding scheme) is a chance for schools to gain extra funding to improve reading standards, so I am naturally concerned at the number of areas where few schools have not yet taken the opportunity to do so," Mr Gibb said. "The money is available until March next year, so there is still time to claim it. But every week that goes by is another week that children are missing out on the best possible teaching of reading."
The statistics suggest a lukewarm response to the scheme. So far, 3,211 primaries have bought phonics products and a further 987 have booked training, spending #163;3.85 million of their own money - just over #163;900 each on average. The government has match-funded that to make a total spend of #163;7.7 million, but, with about 16,000 primary schools in England, the take-up has not been overwhelming.
Heads and teachers point out that match-funding is not free money - it still involves heads spending their schools' cash, which in these straitened times is increasingly difficult to justify. In addition, they observe, most schools already own an acceptable phonics scheme. Why, they ask, spend money on something you already have?
"I think 3,000 schools doesn't seem a high or low number," said Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT. "It's clearly not rejected, but you can't expect every school to need them. Every school teaches phonics already and all have a lot of material. A minority of schools will need to refresh their materials, but when budgets are tight they are not going to waste their money.
"Where budgets are really tight, what they are trying to do is hold on to staff - it's no good having nice new books but no one to teach with them," Mr Hobby said. "Heads are in the best place to make the judgement of whether they need new resources. They are always out for a bargain, but many will have tied the budget up for this year and so will wait until April."
This view was supported by the NUT. "Many schools will already have well-resourced and planned readingliteracy schemes, which are relevant to the pupils in that school and are well used and understood by the teachers," said general secretary Christine Blower. "At a time of budget cuts, schools may feel their financial resources might be better utilised elsewhere. Match-funded by government or not, the schemes will still cost."
Perhaps if he wants to see universal take-up of his initiative, Mr Gibb ought to drop the match-funding element and just give the schemes away.
THE BIG QUESTIONS
From the Department for Education's frequently asked questions about phonics:
Will I get more funding next year?
No. The #163;3,000 available per school covers the period to the end of the financial year in March 2013. Once used, it will not be supplemented.
Can I split my funding across financial years?
Yes. For example, a school could use #163;2,000 of its available allocation this financial year and #163;1,000 next financial year.
Will you be updating the catalogue?
Yes. We anticipate running a new procurement process for inclusion in the catalogue for an update in April 2012.