'Don't worry about ratios'

2nd May 2008 at 01:00
Expert admits play phase could suffer, but not through staff numbers
Expert admits play phase could suffer, but not through staff numbers

A leading expert conceded this week that better-trained teachers and support staff are needed to deliver the play-led foundation phase.

But Iram Siraj-Blatchford, professor of early childhood education at London's Institute of Education, believes teachers have become "hung up" over meeting the 1:8 adult-to-child ratio.

She says the standard of teaching, rather than staff numbers, is more important for the strategy's success.

Professor Siraj-Blatchford, who co-authored the 2006 evaluation of the Welsh play phase pilots, spoke out as education minister Jane Hutt made an amazing U-turn on the funding of the FP.

Days before the Welsh electorate went to the polls for local elections, she promised more cash after months of maintaining the strategy was well costed. Claiming that more money would be needed as a result of increasing birth rates, and based on crisis talks, she said "additional funding will be required".

The decision follows mounting pressure on the Assembly government, with teaching unions claiming the strategy had been plunged into a crisis through lack of staffing, funds and resources.

Delegates at UCAC's annual conference unanimously passed an emergency motion last weekend, calling on the Welsh-speaking teachers' union to support any member unable to implement the strategy because of staffing issues.

Gruff Hughes, general secretary, said: "Members are angry. They are keen to go ahead with the strategy, but feel frustrated."

Iwan Guy, acting director of the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru, said a motion outlining deep concerns would be made at its national conference in Liverpool today. "Rarely have heads been as angry over any issue as they are at the moment," he said.

It also emerged last week that the Assembly's finance committee is to investigate the claims of gross underfunding.

Roll-out of the popular scheme begins this September for under-fives. But many nursery and infant schools claim they can ill-afford the resources on already tight budgets.

However, Professor Siraj-Blatchford says she does not believe the scheme will "fall apart" if the 1:8 - or even 1:10 ratio - is not met.

She said there was "overwhelming support" for the 1:8 ratio from schools during the 2006 evaluation, but her report claims higher ratios alone are not enough to improve teaching quality. "The difference between 1:8 and a couple more pupils is small compared with 30 children to one or two adults," she said.

Anne Harvey, head of Brynford Primary in Flintshire, said: "You can manage without some resources, but it's the staff who really believe in it who count."

But Tudur Jones, head of Ysgol Gymraeg Castell Nedd in Neath Port Talbot, said: "To date, we have had a generous allocation from the Assembly, but 99 per cent of it is ring-fenced for employing staff."

Other schools said staff have become more creative to compensate for the lack of cash and time. Beth Mallet, reception teacher at St Mary's Church in Wales School in Blaenau Gwent, said parents were invaluable for donating their money and time. "I always send home a letter on Friday about activities for the next week," she said.

Some city pilot schools have found outdoor activities a problem. Others needed more storage space. Ann Davies, head of Ysgol-y-Dderi in Ceredigion, came up with the idea of a miniature village to be used as a series of outdoor classrooms.

Leader, page 28.

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