The Government's learning through play initiative for three to seven-year-olds has been hailed a great success by pilot schools, but has been dogged by staffing shortages because of the need for high adult-pupil ratios. The scheme was expected to be started by next year but has now been deferred until September 2008, sparking fears it could be at risk.
Philip Dixon, director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in Wales, said the proposal to re-direct NQTs needed to be taken seriously.
"This seems a win-win situation. The NQT gets invaluable experience and the children get the unique skills of the teacher. The extra funding needed to secure these NQTs would be money very well spent," Dr Dixon said.
Absorbing trainees into primary schools to teach younger pupils would also remove the risk of losing them to other professions.
"This opportunity should certainly be considered by the Assembly Government," said Heledd Hayes of the National Union of Teachers Cymru. "We are talking about valuable and expensive graduates who we are in danger of losing at a time when there is a wonderful opportunity in Wales to be a part of a ground-breaking scheme."
Opposition politicians in the National Assembly say that a lack of funding lies at the heart of the staffing crisis in the foundation stage. They claim the project has never been fully costed and have serious doubts whether it will be fully implemented. NQTs may be too expensive to meet the 1:8 staff:pupil ratio that the Government is aiming for in three years'
time. There is already some evidence of unqualified staff being used.
Children's development is at the heart of the foundation phase, where learning takes place through indoor and outdoor play-based activity. It is being piloted in 41 places across Wales. At one school, St Mary's Church in Wales primary, in Brynmawr, staff are delighted with the results.
Headteacher Ian Forbes said he has seen a difference in the children's communication and social skills. He said that the benchmark ratio was a "a real must" for the scheme to work, and that bringing in newly qualified teachers to complete their first year on the foundation stage was an excellent idea.
A spokeswoman for the Assembly Government said: "Responsibility for recruiting and employing teachers and teaching assistants is a matter for schools and local education authorities. Staffing is one issue that will be considered as part of the detailed project plan to be drawn up early next year."
The minister for education, Jane Davidson, acknowledged there were "considerable implications for training" and in the funding of school play areas. She admitted that a deadline of 2008 was a more realistic time-frame for all schools to switch to the foundation phase.
This year's budget of pound;1.5 million will be increased to pound;2.5m next academic year and to pound;7.5m the year after to continue with pilots and support training.