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Where play's the thing

Wales is bringing 3 to 7-year-olds into a new foundation phase. Gerald Haigh explains

Gradually the twenty-first century education system starts to reveal itself. It includes broader choices for 14 to 19-year-olds, the blurring of the line beween teachers and support staff and schools which provide a range of services. At primary level, there's a drive for a renewal of creativity, combined with the gradual erosion of the Sats tests (so far, at key stage 1 in England and all levels in Wales). The whole lot adds up to a revolution that would have attracted more attention had it been announced as one package. In place of the hard-edged 1990s vision of an education system built like a Terence Rattigan play, with a beginning, a middle and an end, we're starting to see something more like an Ann Jellicoe community drama, with roles and boundaries less well defined.

Perhaps the most important changes are happening to the youngest children.

Partly, they're driven from the people in schools and nurseries, people such as Hilary Hollick, head of Crabtree infants in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, a school pushing the play-based approach officially developed for three to five year-olds up into Year 1 and eventually Year 2.

Even more important, though, and confirmation of the fact that long established wisdom is managing to reassert itself, was the introduction in Wales this school year of a new, extended, foundation phase.

The Welsh Assembly has grasped the nettle of early learning in no uncertain manner. For pupils in key stage 1, the national curriculum is quite simply to be thrown out. ("The national curriculum at key stage 1 will no longer exist in its current form," is how the Learning Wales website puts it.) By 2008 there will be no more key stage 1.

In its place, the new foundation phase starts at three and takes children up to the age of seven. A draft framework is being finessed, and a pilot, involving 41 schools and settings, began in September. The new approach is being phased in over five years. Rather than building the curriculum around secondary style subjects, it defines seven areas of learning: personal and social development and well-being; language, literacy and communication skills; mathematical development; bilingualism and multicultural understanding; knowledge and understanding of the world; physical development and creative development.

It's no accident that personal development and well being are top of the list, for the whole approach is predicated on the principle that it's more important to nurture confident children who are ready to learn than it is to push them into formal work too early. In this regard, much has been learned from experience in mainland Europe, where there's usually a later start for formal learning. The phase's learning framework says: "Learning is holistic and what children can do the starting point. They learn through first hand experiential activities with the serious business of 'play'

providing the vehicle. Through their play children practise and consolidate their learning, play with ideas, experiment, take risks, solve problems and make decisions individually, in small and in large groups."

It's nothing if not courageous - in its emphasis on play. The resource implications are considerable, too, because the project comes with a commitment to an adult to pupil ratio of one to eight - with all the associated salary and training demands. The better ratio is necessary, though, not least because there's a strong emphasis on outdoor work - the forest school movement, getting children to explore the outdoors, is popular in Wales.

It's early days of course, but the optimism remains. Welsh teachers with contacts in England already detect a surge of interest in what's going on.

Welsh heads and inspectors are - perhaps diplomatically - unwilling to suggest that England is beating a path to Wales in this regard. The most I was told was "There have been phone calls."

I'll bet there have. It's the 'Field of Dreams', the 1989 film about baseball starring Kevin Kostner. "If you build it, they will come."

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