Teaching support staff may have to be "poached" from specialist areas to make up numbers for the play-led foundation phase, Wales's education minister Jane Hutt has admitted.
Her statement, made at the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru annual conference in Cardiff last Friday, seems to have confirmed fears of a severe staff shortage less than a year before the flagship initiative is rolled out nationally. Delegates also voiced concern that pound;10 million earmarked for the FP for this financial year should reach schools quickly, hinting that funding is still a huge issue with those at the chalk-face.
Isobel Hind, head of Aberaeron Primary, asked the minister if assistants working with special needs pupils would have to be "poached" to make up the numbers needed to meet staff-pupil ratios of 1:8 for three to five-year-olds and 1:15 for five to seven-year-olds recommended by the Assembly government's advisers.
Ms Hutt said there would "possibly be some of that" but the government's recruitment programme was giving "full status" to early years.
A pound;250,000 advertising campaign was launched in August to find 2,300 extra assistants needed to help qualified teachers as the FP is rolled out. The unions warned that the campaign was "too little, too late".
Margaret Evitts, head of Gungrog Church in Wales Primary in Powys, asked Ms Hutt for assurances. "We have concerns about staffing, training and resources," she said.
Ms Hutt said she was working hard with the Assembly government's senior education team to ensure all needs were met. "Funding started out at Pounds 500,000 in 2004-05 and went up to pound;10m this year," she said.
Sue O'Halloran, the new president of NAHT Cymru, told TES Cymru that it was vital that funding was ring-fenced for the scheme.
"If we do not see money coming into schools quickly we will be pressing the Assembly government for a timetable," she said. "We do not want existing special needs support staff within a school to be transferred to the foundation phase. We will make sure they are not shifted away."
A spokesperson said the Assembly government had entered discussions with Directors of Education in Wales and the Welsh Local Government Association on a "formula" to be used to allocate funding to support schools in meeting the FP ratios. The response also indicated that the current method of allocating specific grants to local authorities is unlikely to differ greatly next year.
The FP is already being piloted in 42 Welsh schools and the Assembly government intends that by 2010 all children starting school will be taught under the learning through play strategy.
Most schools are enthusiastic about the new way of teaching young children which has an emphasis on the outdoors and structured play.
But in its latest report, The Foundation Phase Pilots, published this summer, Estyn said clearer guidelines on teaching the FP should be sent to schools after inspectors witnessed staff letting young children "play aimlessly" in some pilot settings.
The criticism shows that there is also concern over the actual teaching methods deployed, as well as staffing and funding.
Miss O'Halloran, head of Garth Primary in Bridgend, became the NAHT Cymru's president at the two-day conference. Her vice-president is Cheryl Wheldon, head of Coedffranc Primary in Skewen. The conference theme was Leadership for Change, with an emphasis on tackling funding, reducing workload and improving teaching and learning.
In her first speech as president, Miss O'Halloran said: "I am really committed to improve things for school leaders in Wales. Number one is funding."