The Reading Recovery scheme, which was introduced before the last general election with high-profile backing from both the Government and Labour, needs at least Pounds 10 million a year for the next three years to get the programme into each education authority.
The New Zealand-imported scheme, which helps six-year-olds to catch up with reading and writing before they irrevocably fall behind their contemporaries, has just had another successful evaluation.
Angela Hobsbaum, the co-ordinator of the Reading Recovery National Network at London University's Institute of Education, said the programme had spread to 30 authorities, including Northern Ireland, since 1990. About 1,000 teachers had been trained since 1990, with 400 more planned for next year and eight more tutors. But some boroughs, like Wandsworth and Hammersmith and Fulham in London, were struggling to keep the scheme afloat. Delegated budgets meant that many schools could no longer afford to employ a Reading Recovery teacher, she said. About a third had been reabsorbed into mainstream classes, or promoted.
Yet these teachers were a real asset to a school. As experts in early literacy they could screen children, advise on book selection and provide a real resource for colleagues.
Since its inception, the scheme has generated huge public interest. "I don't know why it arouses such intense emotions," Ms Hobsbaum said. "It has a very modest aim. We take children who are falling behind for a variety of reasons and provide a safety net."
RR takes the bottom 20 per cent of six-year-olds - maybe two children in some schools - and gives them one-to-one daily tuition for half an hour, which helps them to catch up after six months.
Teachers - usually those who already give extra class support in their schools - are trained to focus on individual children in a year-long course combining in-service training with practical work. Every two weeks they go to a training centre and either observe colleagues teaching or take their turn behind the one-way screen. Methods, which Ms Hobsbaum describes as "very eclectic", and results are analysed in the spirit of constructive criticism.
During the intensive half-hour with the child, the golden rule is a clear structure, explained Ms Hobsbaum. The pupil first reads a familiar book. Lots of little books, rather than a reading scheme, are used. Then the child will read one he or she saw the previous day, with the teacher taking a running record of progress. The idea is that this book is at the right level to "nudge" the child on. Then magnetic letters may be used to help with difficult words. Next the pupil writes a sentence or two arising out of what he or she has just read.
"This is a very crucial part of the process as you start with a sound in your head and make a symbol on the page, instead of the other way round." At the end of the lesson, the teacher and child look at a new book which will become the one to be recorded next day.
"There is never any time for colouring in pictures, or talking about what you did at the weekend; it is focused, concentrated reading and writing, pacy and fun." Children are encouraged to read with expression. They sound like real readers, and they take books home to read to their younger brothers and sisters, Ms Hobsbaum said.
The RR network argues that the programme presents real value for money, although it is not cheap at around Pounds 1,000 per pupil for specialist teaching. But it costs Pounds 2,500 for the bureaucracy to provide a statement of special educational needs, let alone providing the help, Ms Hobsbaum pointed out.
Early intervention makes good sense as it is easier to help a six-year-old who is 18 months behind than an eight-year-old who has been baffled for three years, she said. And there is evidence from Australia, where the scheme has been going for a longer period, that it has a lasting effect. Secondary school children were found to be doing just as well as their contemporaries.
"I hope we will be able to show that, too. But we have to recognise that RR can only do so much. It is back to the class teacher. We are not in the business of transforming classrooms, but we hope that the new literacy programme will complement our work."
Reading Recovery National Network, Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H OAL