THE PLAY-led foundation phase may be impossible to deliver when it is rolled out for all three to five-year-olds in Wales next year due to a severe staffing shortage, education unions warned this week.
The worrying claims came with an announcement by Jane Hutt, Wales's education minister, that a pound;250,000 advertising campaign has been launched to find an extra 2,300 classroom assistants to help qualified teachers in its aims.
Geraint Davies, Welsh secretary of education union the NASUWT, said the recruitment drive by the government to attract more staff "smacked of desperation".
"It is like closing the stable door after the horse has bolted," he said.
"We have been saying since 2004 that it is important for the right tools and resources to be in place before September 2008. There should have been a two year window for this the announcement should have been made this time last year.
"When schools start to take on the extra personnel next spring for that September, there is a strong possibility the required amount will not be there.
"More than 2,000 people is a lot and you cannot find them overnight. It is a mighty challenge and one which I doubt can be met."
Gareth Jones, National Association of Head Teachers Cymru president, said this week that the recruitment drive should have been announced two years earlier.
"The foundation phase (FP) for nursery and reception pupils is compulsory from next September. Are we going to be able to implement it?" he said.
"If we cannot find sufficient people, we are not going to be able to do it. The Assembly government should have been looking at a three-year timescale. Schools will have real difficulties recruiting enough people in a year."
Speaking after the launch of the recruitment campaign, which will also seek childminders, at the Rhydyfelin Integrated Children's Day Centre in Pontypridd this week, Ms Hutt said the training of more classroom assistants would ease the burden on qualified teachers.
She said more qualified teachers could be found by recruiting class assistants as they train on the job.
But her comments come as confidence over the popular learning strategy reaches an all-time low after publication of a report citing widespread fears over funding, staff training and lack of guidance
Estyn, which published its report The Foundation Phase Pilots last week, now recommends that clearer guidelines are sent to schools after it witnessed staff letting young children "play aimlessly".
Fears over staffing levels were known in September last year when Assembly government figures revealed that more than half of Wales's primary schools do not yet have enough staff to deliver the FP. Plans were made at the time to train "an army of teachers and classroom assistants" for national roll-out of the scheme from September 2008.
Experts believe the FP is best delivered by qualified teachers with the help of classroom assistants at a ratio of 1:8 for three to five years and 1:15 for five to seven-year-olds.
Timescales for the roll-out of the FP to all under-fives has already been delayed to September 2008.
Kath Luxton, principal of the Rhydyfelin children's day centre, echoed concerns at the launch this week, hinting at a staffing crisis.
"The workforce is a huge agenda because there are not enough staff in schools and the route is going to change," she said. "I think schools would need to look at all staff it isn't only about employing classroom assistants."
The foundation phase was first piloted in September 2004 and will be extended to a further 42 settings next month. Full roll-out for all under sevens is 201011.