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Texan who brought Kiwi ideas to Wales

Biddy Passmore talks to Claire Watkins, proponent of reading recovery and other innovations

When Claire Watkins first encountered a Welsh primary school 30 years ago - as a mother - she was shocked. Fresh from her experience of the free-range nursery at Stanford University in California, where her daughter and small son had been romping with goats and a tortoise, she was taken aback to discover that she must present her older child for formal, full-time education at the local primary school in the term after her fifth birthday.

And, when she delivered her daughter to school, there was a line she was told she must not cross.

Things are very different now. Dr Watkins, a charming Texan who settled in Newport 31 years ago with her former husband, a Welsh Quaker, can take her share of credit for the changes. She has been a teacher, deputy and head, before becoming adviser to Gwent county council, and then, when the unitary authority was set up in 1996, to Newport.

Her energy and ideas underpin the authority's high reputation for early years education - ("excellent," says Estyn). She is a member of the advisory committee to the Basic Skills Agency. And she is responsible for bringing reading recovery to Wales.

Dr Watkins has always taken a clear-eyed look at new developments. During her time as head of Maindee infants school she took a doctorate at Cardiff University on the assessment of children's writing before and after the introduction of the national curriculum.

And what did she conclude? "That I was in favour of teacher assessment,"

she says tactfully, adding with a smile, "and that is now actually happening in Wales." She is delighted that teacher assessment is now replacing external tests in Welsh primary schools - and that the "play-based" foundation phase for three to seven-year-olds will become general in Wales from 2008.

These changes will bring practice in Wales closer to the "exciting" ideas she found in 1970s California, where she spent three years doing open-plan team teaching in San Jose (and, closer, she comments wryly, to the old, internationally famed model of "the British infant school"). They will also, of course, bring Welsh primaries nearer to their continental counterparts, where formal education tends to start a year or two later than in the UK. She has seen at first hand primary practice in Finland, which now tops the international literacy league, and observed the active learning in the pre-schools of Reggio Emilia in Italy.

But perhaps Claire Watkins' single greatest contribution to Welsh primary education stemmed from a short visit to New Zealand when she had just completed her doctorate in 1993. After encountering the work of Dame Marie Clay at London's Institute of Education, she made a three-week visit to see for herself just why New Zealand consistently came top of international surveys of literacy at age 11. In addition to well-trained teachers and a good curriculum, she discovered the reading recovery scheme, where six-year-olds who could not read or write were given intensive individual tuition.

On her return, she submitted a successful application to the Welsh Office for a pound;30,000 grant to set up a reading recovery centre in Newport.

Teachers from Cardiff, Torfaen, Monmouth, Blaenau Gwent and Bristol came to it as part of the training programme, beginning in 1995.

Last year, a Newport study found that this technique brought more than 80 per cent of pupils at risk of literacy failure up to the expected level in reading and writing at key stage 1.

Other programmes she has introduced to Newport schools include nurture groups for children who start school unable to get the best out of it. Two adults work with a small group of children to show them that adults can work together, co-operate and support each other. The aim is to get children back into the main classroom within a year - and avoid the need for expensive statements.

When the national literacy strategy was launched in the late 1990s, Dr Watkins offered to pilot it in Newport. But then the Welsh Assembly decided not to adopt it wholesale, leaving Welsh primaries free to "pick and choose and be flexible," she says with an expression of relief.

"Some of our primaries," she confides, "kept their topic work."

Soon Dr Watkins will retire from her role with Newport council. But she will carry on working in other ways - observing, reflecting and spreading the word about how children learn best.

She has quite a lot to observe in her own family. Her daughter has settled in Cardiff and produced no fewer than five daughters. Unlike their grandmother, who still has only a little Welsh, they are all bilingual.

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