Case study: Merthyr Tydfil

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
I began teaching in 1965, with one break of 18 weeks to have my daughter. I feel now, as I near the end of my career, that education in the early years has turned a full circle.

In 1967, Bridget Plowden published her report Children and their Primary Schools. At college, we were taught the theories of Piaget; Plowden was based to a great extent on his theories, so it was inevitable the report would influence our thinking. It advocated children learning through first-hand experiences, by discovery and environmental awareness, using group work and cross-curricular approaches. The report's memorable statement that "at the heart of the educational process lies the child" has influenced me for the whole of my career.

My school is in Merthyr Tydfil, a unitary authority that in 1996 was recognised as the poorest in Wales. There is significant deprivation; 30 per cent of adults have no formal qualifications, almost twice the UK average. Despite the advent of the national curriculum - which overloaded infant schools - we have continuously attempted to give children the play and practical experiences they need to stimulate their learning. Many don't have these experiences before they come to us; it is our responsibility to give them what will be the foundation for their future learning.

One of our reception class teachers has set up a garage in a corner of her room. There is a car made of cardboard boxes, tyres to mend, toy tools, writing pads to record orders, books on transport and car magazines to read. The children learn to take turns and how to play alongside and with other children; they learn how friendships are made.

One of our Year 1 classes has a coal mine with dressing-up clothes, toy tools, a carton of tissue paper coal, checks to enable them to enter the mine and writing materials to record miners in and out. Our school is entering a Welsh Heritage history competition and this role-play is letting children experience what a girl of six may have been doing in Merthyr 150 years ago. This gives them an awareness of their cultural heritage. Their vocabulary is developed; they learn empathy and how to communicate with their peers; they develop skills they need to support them in tackling the complexities of the world. A pizza shop and hamburger "joint" reinforce mathematical concepts - exchange of money, fractions, halves and quarters; the language of buying and selling.

Year 2 children can go into a wardrobe built of cardboard boxes and hessian which brings to life C S Lewis's story of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Inside, it is dark with textures for children to distinguish and reflective surfaces with which to experiment. Scientific concepts are reinforced. The children's requests are constantly "Can I play in the . . .

?", never "Can I do a worksheet?"

Play in these classrooms has been planned by teachers. It sets the stage for learning. It enables children to test their competence without failure.

SATs meant our less able children were labelled as failures from the age of seven. Most teachers are delighted that our minister for education, Jane Davidson, has abolished these tests at the end of key stage 1. She is about to make major changes to the curriculum, including a foundation phase from three to seven based on seven areas of learning and on well-planned play-based activities. The childadult ratio will be high - but some teachers, especially those who have taught for 12 years or less, are wary.

They have known nothing but a national curriculum-based education system and may need persuading to see that the new proposals will benefit the children in their care.

Standards at key stage 1 have risen consistently and there is a lot of good practice in our infants' schools and classes. A lot of thought will need to be given to how the foundation stage will relate to key stage 2. I hope that will change. Those who are Plowden advocates know it's right.

Gwen Williams is head of Edwardsville infants' school, Merthyr Tydfil, south Wales

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