Western Mail Article – Are we really still committed to the Foundation Phase?

3 Nov

It is fair to say the public have some pretty strong views on Welsh education.  With the exception of the health debate in recent months it is arguably education that has filled the pages of Welsh newspapers without rival over the past few years.  At different times, at different levels and from different sources, there has been a great deal of criticism for teachers, schools, local authorities and the Welsh Government to deal with.  One area that has not been criticised however is the principle of the Foundation Phase.  Almost unanimously this area of Welsh education has been recognised as a great success.  Introducing it was a bold step but one that has paid off.  It has seen particular success in engaging young boys, a section of the student population that has been stubbornly hard to reach in the past.

With universal support for the Foundation Phase across Welsh education is it odd to think then that the commitment to the policy is under question, but that is exactly what appears to be happening in Wales at the moment.  Recently Huw Lewis AM issued a statement on the revised areas of learning for Wales. In this announcment the Education Minister said of the Foundation Phase.

“For the Foundation Phase, Areas of Learning are now presented in the revised layout of year-by-year expectations. I want to be absolutely clear that this does not mark any departure from the current approach for the Foundation Phase – my commitment to the Foundation Phase and its philosophy to teaching and learning has not changed. The emphasis is still firmly focused on teaching our youngest children at a pace and level that is appropriate to them, and through experiential learning.”

While it was pleasing to read the Minister put it clearly that he retains support for the principles of the Foundation Phase it is hard to accept those words are complimented by the policy actions that have been taken. It is very difficult to believe that anyone could possibly expect children to learnat a pace and level that is appropriate to them’ while also setting year-by-year expectations.’ Those year-by-year expectations are, by definition, setting a level for children which may, or may not, be appropriate. Teachers will undoubtable be pressured to move children along at a pace that matches the expectations rather than at a pace that matches the capabilities of those children. In the long-term that will lead to children being marginalised, disinterested and disengaged from education. It also risks children moving onto the next stage of development without having fully grasped earlier expectations. The basic premise of “learning through play” will be lost.

The perception of the Welsh Government rowing back on their focus on the Foundation Phase is not a new one.  In March 2014 early years expert, Professor Iram Siraj, said this in her Foundation Phase stocktake report.

“whilst gathering evidence the Stocktake found that many staff were concerned about the future of the Foundation Phase and whether it was to continue. This appeared to be related to concerns that it was not yet being implemented effectively across the country in all maintained schools and funded non-maintained settings, that the initial baseline measure had been withdrawn and, most notably, the recent introduction and formality of the literacy and numeracy tests in Year two which appeared to some to signal a governmental move away from the Foundation Phase philosophy.”

This statement touched on a significant viewpoint within the education sector.  While the Welsh Government have given assurances that they remain supportive of the Foundation Phase the policies that they are putting in place have chipped away at the credibility of those claims.

Only this week Professor David Reynolds, an advisor to the Welsh Government, said on Radio Wales in response to concerns about the pressures put on young children as a result of the standardised testing regime they encounter after leaving the Foundation Phase;

“it may well be the case that moving out of the Foundation Phase into a stand and deliver test situation would be stressful. The answer there is not to stop the testing, because data helps us, but to ensure that children in the Foundation Phase actually have some formal situations, like the testing.”

If testing children straight out of the Foundation Phase has undermined the philosophy in the eyes of those practitioners delivering it, testing them formally while they are in that stage of their education will compleatly contradict it.  It is little wonder that the education sector are second guessing the Welsh Government’s commitment to the Foundation Phase when official Welsh Government advisors are taking to our national broadcasters to suggest fundermental changes to the principles on which it has been founded.

There can be no half measures with this policy.  Either we are fully commited to the Foundation Phase, with a strategy that runs through a child’s education to match that, or we are not.  At present the system is becoming increasingly fragmented on this point and it is the children that progress through it who will lose out.

The Welsh Government must clarify its position through both words and action or else it will fail to stand by the foundations on which the Foundation Phase is built.

You can read the origional article from the Western Mail here.



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