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Play 'needs more work'

Act over foundation phase and stop hiding, says Steve Marshall.

The largest annual event in Britain's education calendar was staged at Cardiff's Millennium Centre last week.

It was the second time in its 100-year history that the two-day North of England Education Conference (NEEC) had been held outside its home.

But some of the most loyal followers of the post-Christmas ritual claimed delegate numbers were down on previous years. Some also felt it had been hard to mix the increasingly divergent education policies of Wales and England.

But the proceedings, with an audience of around 350, did provide some nice touches - including the participation of local schoolchildren in debates.

Controversy surrounded comments made to the Western Mail this week by Professor David Hopkins from London University's Institute of Education - a key speaker at the event.

The former special adviser to Whitehall said the shunned testing system for seven and 11-year-olds should be resurrected in Wales in a bid to raise standards.

But his criticism comes as England's testing regime is also under fire. Just last week The TES reported how radical changes to England's primary curriculum could include allowing more play-led learning (January 11). It follows the findings of a review that says constant test preparation is creating unhappy and anti-social children over the border.

And a story published in our sister publication Times Higher Education reported that many universities now have to compensate for "spoon-fed" children, the result of "testing and targets" in schools.

Steve Marshall, Wales's outgoing director of the department of children, education and lifelong learning, also made a parting shot during his speech.

Calling for action in Wales rather than "hiding in the long grass", the 53-year-old Australian said more work was needed on the play-led foundation phase before it was rolled out for younger pupils this September.

After the speech Phil Dixon, director of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers Cymru, said: "We are up for the challenge, but is the government up to funding these schemes properly?"

'Play-led assistants should speak Welsh'

A classroom assistant who can siarad Cymraeg (speak Welsh) is the most suited to deliver the foundation phase, it was claimed this week.

Annette Evans, a leading local government officer at Conwy Council, made the comments after leading a FP workshop at the NEEC this year.

She said it was preferable if new assistant recruits could speak a little of Wales's mother-tongue as it played such a large part in the new curriculum. But she conceded that "finding the right people is a challenge".

This month the Assembly government stepped up a campaign to find 2,300 assistants over the next three years. The FP is rolled out nationally for all three to five-year-olds this September and 1,300 places need to be filled. The pound;250,000 advertising campaign, Play, Learn and Grow, includes TV adverts.

There have been 700 enquiries so far and the government says it is confident enough assistants will be in post by September. But teaching unions say the campaign should have been launched earlier. There are also concerns that staff will be poached from other areas.

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