We've lost the Grand Slam

23rd May 2008 at 01:00
The foundation phase was meant to be a Welsh winner, but it's destined for the wooden spoon
The foundation phase was meant to be a Welsh winner, but it's destined for the wooden spoon

It should have been the education good news story of the year. The Welsh media could have been filled for months with pictures and stories from outdoor classrooms, showing children engrossed in their learning, building richer emotional and language skills, and leaving behind a reluctance to engage with whole-class teaching.

Practitioners in England would look on enviously at headlines like Good learning; The best of foundations; World class; Happy children, Happy schools, Happy education minister.

Instead, Jane Hutt, the education minister, is under fire from all quarters, and school leaders are considering how they can legally express their dismay and hostility at what will happen in the new school year.

Ms Hutt's best-laid plans are sinking fast. Last-minute rescue attempts have only poured oil on already troubled waters. The primary sector is united in its discontent. To understand why, one must appreciate the strength of consensus around this cornerstone of the new Welsh way.

Thematically structured, outdoor-focused and play-based, our curriculum for 3 to 7-year-olds was modelled on solid research and proven practice in Scandinavia, Italy and New Zealand. It broke the umbilical link to an English system long criticised by education professionals. More importantly, it offered a real chance to break the cycle of educational deprivation found in too many communities throughout Wales.

Research shows what school leaders have always known; children in low-income, low-skilled homes hear fewer words, receive fewer speech patterns and encounter less praise than those from higher-income homes. That relative advantage makes a difference in schools from the very beginning, and it costs the system increasingly large amounts of resource to try to bridge the gap as youngsters get older.

That is why secondary colleagues should see this as their problem too.

As one leading practitioner says, in foundation phase settings children talk to each other. They interact, learn to work together and extend themselves in ways that too often escape them with whole-class teaching. With careful support from teachers and assistants, and working in small groups, young children do better.

Enriching the language and personal skills of our youngest children through play offered us a chance of rebuilding, from base, the educational outcomes of many Welsh youngsters now left too far behind.

Working through directed play allows teachers to build emotional skills, making learning enjoyable and stopping the classroom switch-off which underlies so many later problems.

This issue is about better futures for youngsters right through our now distinct and diverging education system. It should save at least some of the huge resource currently devoted to those many government programmes that try to put right what has been lost in youngsters' early development.

The secondary sector should be equally concerned at the obvious dilution of what was done successfully in the pilots.

Key to the successful implementation in the 80-plus pilot projects in maintained and non-maintained settings across Wales was the 1:8 staff-pupil ratio. Added to this was appropriate training for staff.

For five years, school leaders have warned that ambitious plans needed significant additional resource. The profession supported the underlying philosophy on the understanding that all schools would be funded and resourced in line with the pilot schools. Ministers always insisted funding and training would be available, but diluting the statutory nature of the ratio signalled that the Assembly government was reining back both vision and practice.

No doubt Ms Hutt believed she had enough money. Council officials disagreed, finding last autumn that the government had got its sums badly wrong. When local authorities eventually released budget allocations to schools, it was immediately clear to all that the statutory implementation had been greatly underfunded.

National Association of Head Teachers members in pilot schools faced the dismantling of the excellent provision they had successfully developed. Others, eager to get started themselves, found barely any additional resource to devote to it.

The minister's mantra was that pound;107 million over three years was enough. Few believed her. In Blaenau Gwent alone, schools and council officials calculated that pound;500,000 more was needed. That would equate to around pound;20m across Wales.

The pound;5m extra announced sensibly protected the pilots, but threatened to create a two-tier system. Some are now funded to acceptable ratios, and all others are legally obliged to deliver the same outcomes with fewer staff. No wonder school leaders were annoyed. What was surprising was the scale and intensity of the reaction.

Cynics may say it was all predictable. The early vision of Jane Davidson, set out in The Learning Country, was never affordable, was it? In a new age of stagflation and public spending restraint, Wales does not have the resources to pay for the FP as originally conceived. But can we afford not to fund it?

We have talked up the FP throughout the UK as being both world-class and distinctively ours. Does anyone relish going from educational Grand Slam to wooden spoon within 12 months? We have articulated the vision so well and in so many places. The pilots have been a clear success. Few now will put up with second best. Small deeds will turn groundbreaking vision into senseless dreams.

If the FP is not properly funded, it simply won't work as it should and our self-proclaimed learning country will continue to lag behind. This is a problem for us all. The One Wales coalition will need to commit to solving it if it is to retain credibility in the education sector.

Chris Howard is vice-president of the National Association of Head Teachers and head of Lewis School in Pengam.

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