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Forest gumption

Preview of the National Exhibition and Conference, Cardiff International Arena, May 27-28

As children have fun in the woods, they are part of an experiment to extend learning through play to seven-year-olds. Gerald Haigh reports on a vision that is likely to become a Welsh reality. Photographs by Russell Sach

There are many excellent things to be seen at Duffryn infants school in Newport, Monmouthshire: good singing in assembly; children eager to show their pictures and writing; and a nurture group where pupils have the time to eat toast and tell stories of joy (receiving lots of presents), and loss (a precious bike stolen from the front porch).

Best of all, though, is the forest school. Across the road from Duffryn infants, an urban school, is mature woodland that has escaped being turned into part of Duffryn housing estate. Among the trees, in fenced-off safety, children wearing raingear provided by the community explore their surroundings with teachers and other adults, including an educator from the Forestry Commission. They whittle sticks, find bugs, hide behind trees and seek wood for a fire.

These childhood activities are unfamiliar to many of today's urban youngsters. In fact, head Sian Jones says the children "don't know how to walk on uneven ground at first. They've only ever walked on floors and pavements."

The most impressive thing about the woodland experience is that it's so unhurried. Every child at Duffryn has a long weekly session in the forest school; there's no pressure to come rushing back to do things that someone in authority deems more important.

The feeling that there's time to develop ideas and pursue interests pervades the whole school; it's what struck me most about Duffryn. If I had to articulate the philosophy in official-sounding language it might sound something like this:

"Learning is holistic and what children can do the starting point. They learn through first-hand experiential activities, with the serious business of 'play' providing the vehicle. Through their play, children practise and consolidate their learning, play with ideas, experiment, take risks, solve problems and make decisions individually, in small and in large groups."

It's a familiar set of ideas, the kind of thing that early-learning experts have been telling us for 100 years. What makes this statement different is that not only does it come from a government document, it applies to all children from ages three to seven.

It is, in fact, the draft framework for the proposed foundation phase in Welsh education, due to start its pilot stage this September. By 2008 it should be in place for all threes-to-sevens - in schools, playgroups and nurseries - across the country. The 41 pilot schools and settings, including a child-minder's, are as diverse as possible.

Extending the concept of "foundation" (which is for three-to-five year-olds in England) all the way to seven is intended to put the child's learning and developmental needs at the centre of the system.

Duffryn will be one of the pilot schools, a development that Sian Jones welcomes: "If we give our children a very practical early years curriculum, they'll be that much more ready for a formal curriculum later on. In many countries they don't start reading and writing till seven, and yet the children do better than ours at 11."

For much of this thinking, Wales has looked to the Continent. Heads, including Sian Jones, have made study visits there. One result is the growth in Wales of forest schools, which are well established in Denmark and involve children spending up to 80 per cent of the school day outside.

Education and lifelong learning minister Jane Davidson, launching the foundation phase consultation last year, also referred to Europe: "Those countries which outperform us educationally, which have better literacy and numeracy rates at the age of 11 and better staying-on rates at the age of 1617 also have better early years provision, focusing on how to encourage children's learning, not just putting them in a classroom."

A lot of hope is riding on the foundation phase. The expectation, ultimately, is for less disaffection in secondary schools, fewer children shunted into the special educational needs process as the result of being pushed ahead of their development, improvements in literacy, more effective Welsh language teaching, and ultimately a better-educated nation. That, in part, is the answer you're given when you ask about the costs of the change.

The financial implications, though, are immediate and real. The promise is for a ratio of one adult for eight children, so more staff will be needed, as well as more training.

Shan Richards of Estyn, the Welsh inspectorate, is advising the Assembly on the foundation phase. She says: "What we'll see is both new and experienced teachers trained not only in the curriculum, but in child development."

It's believed, however, that the change in classroom practice won't be equally radical across the phase. Where there's good pre-school and nursery practice, that will remain essentially the same. And at the other end, Year 2 pupils might be ready for more formal work. So although the foundation phase will touch the whole age group, the biggest change will be to Year 1, where early years practice will be extended away from a formal, outcome-driven curriculum.

There's professional enthusiasm for the proposal: more experienced people see it as a move away from the prescribed rigidity of recent years. "We've had people put off retirement now that they've seen this coming," says Shan Richards. (Envious noises, and requests for the draft documents, are coming from across the border.) At the same time, Ms Richards is at pains to point out that much of the experience gained through the national curriculum is too good to be thrown away: "What we have to sell in our seminars is that we're not going back to the notion of waiting for children to develop. We've learned how to offer experiences to children, to give them support and scaffolding - the diamond-shaped lesson, science investigations, children reviewing their work."

Sian Jones agrees: "We've come on a long journey and learned much on the way. We need to hold on to that, but we now need to go back to the child being in the centre of it all."

Draft documents on the foundation ion-index-e.htmForest schools: AREAS OF LEARNING

The draft framework for the three-to-seven foundation phase sets out seven cross-curricular "Areas of Learning":

* Personal and social development and well-being;

* Language, literacy and communication skills;

* Mathematical development;

* Bilingualism and multicultural understanding;

* Knowledge and understanding of the world;

* Physical development; and

* Creative development

At the exhibition

Foundation stage workshops will include: Looking at Pictures (Thursday, 12.30pm), The Language of Me (Thursday, 3.30pm), and Maths through Stories (Thursday, 12.30pm)

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