The play's the thing in Wales

1st October 2004 at 01:00
The new Welsh foundation phase could prove to have some valuable lessons for England, and vice versa.

Should the Liberal Democrats happen to be voted into power in the coming election, they will have to look to Wales to see how some of their plans might work. Perhaps they already have done so. The party wants to reform infant education so that it focuses on play and exploration, and to slim down the national curriculum.

Last month Wales began trying out its three to seven foundation phase, and will soon be reviewing its national curriculum to make it more skills-based.

England, of course, already has a play-based foundation stage but there are a number of obvious differences. In Wales the play-based approach is for children in the infant years as well as the under-fives, and does not end at reception as it does in England.

The Welsh, apparently, are not afraid to appear a bit cuddly, and openly use the word child-centred (which English quangocrats still fear to touch) in the draft framework published during the summer.

The new phase is being piloted over four years and development of its assessment system has not even begun. In England, not only was the foundation stage implemented after much briefer trials, the controversial assessment profile was severely undermined by being made mandatory in its first year, even though the materials did not arrive in schools in time to be used properly.

Whatever the value of the profile (many think it is over-complicated and time-consuming but others believe it is helpful), it is now hard for officials to convince teachers that it is not an end-of-year, one-off instrument of summative assessment.

On the other hand, both countries' approaches have much in common with their areas of learning, such as creative development, personal and social development and physical development, rather than subjects such as English and PE.

They are firmly grounded in research showing that children learn best when there is a balance of activities led by teachers and those chosen by children, when teachers and children put their heads together in extended thinking sessions, and when children are asked open-ended questions.

But the Welsh framework appears to focus more on spiritual development and cites research evidence suggesting that children do not begin to benefit from extensive formal teaching until they are about six or seven.

A section on moral and spiritual development includes "be still and reflect" and "begin to develop concepts of being helpful, forgiveness and fairness". Spirituality is less obvious in England's foundation stage guidance. This term, 141 schools, playgroups and other under-fives settings across Wales have begun piloting the draft framework. The trial will not reach Year 1 until next September - and that is when some hard questions will have to be answered.

Wendy Scott, of the Early Years Curriculum Group, points out that nothing in the materials so far shows infant teachers - accustomed to more formal teaching based around national curriculum subjects - how they can adapt their lessons.

"If you were a Year 2 teacher used to a prescriptive approach, how would you find out what to do?" she asks.

Despite such concerns, she and her early-years colleagues welcome a system which is "starting at the beginning, rather than extrapolating downwards all the time".

Dorothy Selleck, a former Welsh HMIfor early years, is concerned about how teachers will be supported in learning the new methods. "Who is going to train them and who is going to think it through with them?" she asks.

Meanwhile, some people fear that the new curriculum will not be rigorous enough. Many parents in a TES Cymru poll were worried about a play-based approach in the infants. Some literacy specialists are asking if it will provide structured speaking and listening activities for the increasing number of children who come to nursery with underdeveloped skills in this area.

Shan Richards of Estyn, the Welsh inspectorate, who has been seconded to write and introduce the foundation phase, says it has a strong emphasis on speaking and listening. Guidance is being produced by ACCAC, the Welsh curriculum authority, and more will be developed as it is needed.

Roger Palmer, assistant chief executive at ACCAC, says that as they develop the assessment framework, they will be linking the "desirable outcomes" for five-year-olds with level descriptions in what is now key stage 1, as well as KS2. Future advice will look at how play becomes part of learning, he says.

"It's going to have to be an evolutionary process." Wales is reviewing the whole curriculum with the intention of "redressing the balance between content and skills", he says.

The national primary strategy in England has produced guidance, showing how learning skills can be mapped on to national curriculum subjects - but so far there is no talk of paring down the subject content. This means some teachers will simply be fed up with what looks to them like extra demands.

Welsh minister of education and lifelong learning, Jane Davidson, will not always have a smooth path. Some teachers want more structure than Wales's child-centred foundation phase or Sat-free primary phase offers. Samizdat copies of England's literacy framework are in wide use, and many schools send off for copies of the national tests from England.

But whatever the faults, Welsh Labour's policy appears to be based on an open-minded attempt to get things right for children rather than to fit into a specific political agenda which demands that targets and tables continue to reign.

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