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Prepared to fly high

A good start is worth investing in. Minister Jane Davidson outlines the Assembly's early-years plans

The Welsh Assembly government is committed to developing the best possible care and education provision for our youngest citizens. That is why we have looked at countries where innovative policies for early-years care and education have been pioneered.

In the UK this includes the work of the influential EPPE (effective provision of pre-school education) project. This research points unequivocally to the benefits that can be derived from interventions with this age group.

Providing such initiatives are sufficiently intensive, the evidence shows that children, whatever their background, improve their educational achievement and motivation for lifelong learning.

Studies carried out in countries with extended experience in introducing these policies point to their longer-term benefits in areas outside of education.

These children are more likely to be in employment as adults, enjoy good health and generally experience good levels of life satisfaction. They are less likely to be involved in crime, to suffer mental health problems and generally to experience forms of social and economic dislocation.

The message is pretty clear: invest as much as you can in early-years education and you will reap the dividend. In our drive to make Wales the Learning Country we are responding to this compelling evidence by developing policies that rise to this challenge.

Last month we launched our "flying start" programme for children from birth to three-years-old in Wales. Initially this will provide pound;46 million during 2006-8, targeted at children and families in some of our most deprived areas.

These are the places where, in primary schools, more than 45 per cent of children are entitled to free meals.

A range of services will be made available, including quality, centre-based childcare for all two to three-year-olds on a part-time basis, health visitor support, programmes designed to improve parenting skills and an extension to our books-for-babies initiative.

We will develop new integrated centres or use local primary schools to provide a base for the professionals who will work in the flying start programme, and as information points for families. Flying start will target the language, cognitive, social and emotional development of the children involved. It will also focus on their physical health.

We are now in the second year of piloting the new foundation phase for three to seven-year-olds, with a curriculum that again draws from good practice around the world. It is based around active learning designed to give children the best possible start to their education.

As with all our new policies, we have commissioned an independent evaluation, now under way, and will deliver a final report next summer. We have recently received an interim report which notes the overwhelming support that exists for the foundation phase, something that has struck me forcibly in all my contacts with early-years practitioners.

But it does point to areas that will require our attention as we move forward. In particular, it highlights the need to improve the qualifications and training of teaching and other staff, so that the foundation phase can have its full impact.

I want to make sure that the foundation phase is developed properly to include any improvements to the curriculum, assessment arrangements and changes to legislation. Our original plan was to roll out the foundation phase next year.

Following advice from the sector, I have decided to introduce a revised, more realistic timescale for implementation.

We intend the statutory roll-out to start from September 2008. In the meantime. we will extend the geographic scope of the pilot to include more schools and settings.

In 2006-7, the budget for the foundation phase will increase by pound;1m and in 2007-8 by pound;5m. This will enable the existing pilots to grow in number and for staff training to be targeted. My officials are currently undertaking detailed work on these plans.

The foundation phase is intended to be life-changing. We must prepare thoroughly and carefully for the high-quality experience that, from September 2008, will begin to be offered to all three to seven-year-olds in Wales.

Flying start and the foundation phase are closely linked. Together they provide a special, made-in-Wales offer to our youngest children and their families.

In time, I am confident that these programmes will transform the landscape of learning in Wales.

Jane Davidson is the Welsh Assembly's minister for education and lifelong learning

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