Phonics: the sounds that letters make. Kerching!

Janet Downs's picture

Phonics, according to Ofsted, are “letters and the sounds that they make”. But for some producers of phonics materials, the sound is the noise of cash registers going "kerching!".

Figures obtained under Freedom of Information by Professor Margaret Clark, visiting professor in early years education at Newman University, show that £25,593,109 funding has been provided under the Government’s match-funding scheme for buying phonics materials from a Department for Education (DfE) approved list. £22m was spent on materials and £1.3m for training.

Private Eye pointed out that money received by publishers and trainers would be double the DfE amount because schools had to match the funding provided.

The three most popular resources were (in ascending order):

1 Floppy’s Phonics, published by Oxford University Press (OUP) received approximately £3m in DfE funding;
2 Phonics Bug, published by Pearson, nearly £4m;
3 Read, Write Inc, also published by OUP, received over £4m.

Read, Write Inc is produced by Ruth Miskin, an enthusiastic proponent of synthetic phonics, a method of teaching reading endorsed by school ministers. She is director of Ruth Miskin Literacy Limited which received £546,614 in matched funding for training from the DfE.

Ruth Miskin was also an adviser to the DfE on the primary curriculum. When the primary curriculum review was announced and the names of advisers, TES reported concerns about a possible conflict of interest between Miskin’s role as adviser and a producer of teaching materials. The DfE and Miskin denied this at the time saying the curriculum review would not be recommending particular publications.

But Miskin’s Read, Write Inc is one of nine mainstream phonics schemes on the DfE approved list (one resource, published by the DfE, is free – it contains the forbidden word in synthetic phonics circles – “cue” – so will probably be removed). Read, Write Inc is also listed as a supplementary resource.

Ian McNeilly, director of the National Association for the Teaching of English, told the Guardian he was worried about the influence of such advisers:

"Ministers like to promote the idea of a free market, with free exchange of information and ideas. But this isn't what's happened here: ministers have their ideology and have listened to a coterie of people who are in line with that ideology. It's terrible practice."

It appears it has the potential to be a financially rewarding one.


Clark, Professor Margaret M, OBE, “Whose knowledge counts in Government literacy policies and at what cost?” Education Journal issue 186 20 January 2014, pp 13-16

Private Eye, No 1359, 7-20 February 2014

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Brian's picture
Mon, 10/02/2014 - 16:01

Very interesting Janet. I guess we can expect Tristram Hunt to raise this in the House !!

I was working with an infant school last week where reading results have been Sig+ in RaiseOnline for years. But their results in the Y1 phonics screening check have been well below national levels. We're now discussing how to get those results up without it distracting teachers and pupils, especially the higher attainers, from learning to read and (sorry Mr.Gove) enjoying it.

Jo's picture
Mon, 10/02/2014 - 16:18

I wish there was a profit cap on all resources used in schools.

I was heartened recently to read about and then use Phonics International - £99.00 per year- all the resources you need and telephone support. I feel quite evangelical about it having recently found it!

Barry Wise's picture
Mon, 10/02/2014 - 17:03

The £22m on resources works out as an average of just £1300 per primary school: much less than the £3000 per school the scheme allowed for, and just about the cost of a couple of laptops.

I've known schools blow more on white elephants, VLEs that were never used.....etc. Seems fair enough to me.

John Mountford's picture
Mon, 10/02/2014 - 19:36

Well, Barry, so long as we are all happy that there has been no conflict of interest here, everything must be well in the 'early readers' garden'. The problem is, as the evidence has shown with many able young readers, the phonic approach is not a panacea for "all that is wrong in the teaching of reading". Rather than using the phonics screening test, teachers' judgement should determine whether individual children need prolonged exposure to phonics at all and that cannot happen under DfE rules unless a child is disapplied. Welcome to the distorted world of evidence based education.

Ingenue Governor's picture
Mon, 10/02/2014 - 23:24

Labour wanted to increase the use of phonics after the 2006 rose report , for which Ruth miskimmin was an adviser. Phonics enables the children who can't work out the phonic code for themselves from the Look Say method, to decode effectively.
The subversion of phonics from the late 1940,s was perpetrated by egotists intent on profit and kudos from their method which showed accelerated ability and ignored the lack of sustainability for struggling readers in the long term.
Labour wanted to see the return of phonics but the Tories had the balls to enforce it.

Brian's picture
Tue, 11/02/2014 - 08:41

While not dismissing the place of phonics in leaning to read the notion that it is the key to reading, especially for less strong or confident readers is misguided. The Ofsted focus on the Y1 phonics test is distorting the learning to read process, which requires a balance of several approaches. Less confident readers who think phonics is the way forward come unstuck, further damaging their confidence. 20% of words in English aren't phonically regular and that includes a huge number of high frequency words. Any child trying to phonically decode: the, you, said, his, people, to, they, were, do, know, was, would, are, some, your ,of, there, because, as, mother, is, one, what, could, who
two, too, should are likely to come unstuck. Sight learning in context or through Look and Say is required and falling back on phonics won't help.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 11/02/2014 - 09:36

Ingenue Governor: "Tories had the balls to enforce it". No politician should force any teaching method on to schools. It erodes teacher professionalism. Without wishing to provoke an argument about the use of phonics (synthetic v analytical, "first, fast and foremost" etc), there are three two fundamental issues here:

1 The ability of teachers to decide which teaching materials will best fit their pupils.
2 The imposition by politicians of their own pet methods (and I'd be just as annoyed if politicians enforced "whole books", Look and Say or the Initial Teaching Alphabet)
3 The use of advisers who stand to benefit from the adoption of any method (the subject of this thread).

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