Monday, 12 January 2015

Foundation Fazed

Is the Welsh Government's flagship Foundation Phase all its
cracked up to be? Despite the headlines, it probably is.
(Pic : Twyn School)
Last week it was reported that a review of the Foundation Phase by WISERD has shown it's failing to live up to one of its key aims, which is to reduce the gap in performance between children from well-off families and poorer families.

All of the relevant documents are available here, but you're not going to go through all that, are you? You're not stupid or masochistic enough to do that. Luckily for you, I am.

As you can tell, the report and its supporting documents are much more extensive than the bite size account given by the BBC and Western Mail, so it's worth taking a closer looks to see what impact Foundation Phase - which remains one of the more memorable and radical policies introduced since devolution – is making.

Foundation Phase : An Overview

The Foundation Phase takes children out of the classroom and
allows them to learn through self-directed and structured play.
(Pic : Carrog School)
The Foundation Phase was launched during the Third Assembly by the then Education Minister, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan), but its origins lie in a ten-year education plan - one of the first such strategies developed after the National Assembly's establishment.

The original Foundation Phase report, published in 2003, underlined a number of shortcomings in educational attainment for pupils aged 3-7 (Nursery up to and including Year 2).
  • Pupils were spending too much time on desk-based activities.
  • Pupils weren't spending enough time developing creative and communication skills, and in some cases were introduced to formal literacy lessons before they were ready.
  • Insufficient staffing levels for younger age groups.
  • Pupils weren't given enough independence to learn.
The review believed this was a direct result of an over-formal approach to early years teaching, which in areas like reading and writing was said to be "counter-productive". Pedagogical research showed the most effective ways for children to learn at this age involve, "problem-solving, exploration, active involvement and language development through play".

The Nordic Countries (in particular Sweden and Finland) have a much more relaxed approach to early-years education, where formal literacy and numeracy lessons doesn't start until much later in school life. These nations often have exceptionally higher attainment rates too.

The Welsh Government decided they were going to come up with a Welsh version, hence Foundation Phase, which would involve "learning through play" in order to meet developmental needs of children as individuals.

In practice this means younger children are guided to figure out certain concepts for themselves, with teachers and supervisors structuring the play – whether indoors, outdoors or through formal lessons. This has resulted in a whole host of different lesson plans and activities being made available either by the Welsh Government or outside organisations.

The Learning Wales website lists the sorts of activities Foundation Phase pupils do. For example, they learn basic mathematical concepts using toys (i.e. number of toy cows in a field) or through activities like cooking (which introduce concepts like measurement); while literacy and communication skills are developed through something called "circle time" (American-style "show and tell") or discussing favourite books.

It sounds a bit "wishy washy new age teaching" but it does have a certain logic behind it. These school days sound significantly more enjoyable and engaging than anyone reading this will remember, and I suppose you can say it tricks kids into learning.

The Review's Findings

Jobs for the girlos. Foundation Phase has resulted in a dramatic improvement in staff:pupil ratios,
and has been broadly welcomed by both teachers and parents alike - though not without specific concerns.
(Pic : Swansea Council)
The findings themselves (dated from the 2011-12 academic year) were split up onto several categories on separate documents, so I'll only pick out the most important conclusions.
  • Parents support the principle of the Foundation Phase and have a firm grasp of what it's all about, though 72% would like further information and few parents were involved in day-to-day running. There's also a link between increased enjoyment of school and the teaching methods deployed during the scheme.
  • Staff : pupil ratios have changed from 1:19 to 1:10, though only 50% of schools met the recommended 1:8 ratio for 3-5 year olds and 1:15 for 5-7 year olds. The numbers of staff with the prerequisite qualifications has also exceeded expectations, and there are more qualified staff in Wales compared to England. There was resistance amongst a significant minority of staff when Foundation Phase was introduced, and this existed more amongst Welsh-medium staff than English-medium staff and pilot schools. Teachers were generally satisfied with the levels of training and support their received, but there were concerns about "mixed messages" from the Welsh Government which means some teachers are calling for more specific advice.
  • There were mixed feelings about the Foundation Phase has on pupils transfering to to Key Stage 2 (ages 7-11), with 19% of teachers saying Foundation Phase was having a negative impact on KS2 (compared to 25% who thought it was positive) . Although there were no major qualms about end of Foundation Phase assessments, there are concerns about levels of uncertainty. Despite this, 85% of parents were happy with reading and numeracy tests taking place in KS2.
  • There were no variations between how English and Welsh-medium schools implemented Foundation Phase. 42% of Foundation Phase staff believe that the scheme has improved Welsh-language skills amongst both EM and WM pupils – even use of Welsh when no adults were present. It's said children who don't speak Welsh at home are benefiting the most from Foundation Phase, but EM pupils' English skills had improved more compared to their Welsh.
  • Schools spent £15,000 on average improving their indoor environments and £18,000 outdoors (used on average 2/3 times a week, sometimes every day) in preparation for Foundation Phase. Schools said funding would be the factor they would change most about the scheme, particularly for outdoor activities. There was a link between learning outdoors and children being more physically active.
  • Schools said their approach to Foundation Phase was "evolving", with some introducing formal literacy and numeracy lessons in the morning to ensure children perform well in KS2 literacy and numeracy tests - with gender gaps persisting in subjects like English and Maths.
  • There was broad agreement that Foundation Phase is having a "positive impact" on pupils' well being, attendance levels, attitudes to learning and confidence – in particular boys. However, there was less of a consensus on the positive impact towards literacy, numeracy and amongst more-able pupils.
  • The Foundation Phase hasn't done as much to combat social inequalities as it aspired too, with no significant changes (except in isolated cases). There's continuing under-performance in attainment and attendance amongst children who receive free school meals and those with special needs. Focused and targeted intervention, instead of universal programmes like Foundation Phase, are "generally accepted" as better.

A foundation to build on

For the love of all that is holy, this report SHOULD NOT be used
as an excuse for another round of education policy tinkering.
(Pic : Wales Online)
As much as you would like me to pick holes in the policy I'm not going to as even the report says the findings aren't "fully conclusive".

Despite some of the slightly-critical reports being produced on the effectiveness of this programme (most have, in fact, been well-balanced between good and bad points), policy-makers are on to something and it's still too early to judge.

Although It's clear this hasn't yet been the transformative magic bullet in early years education the Welsh Government would like it to be, one of the key problems in education policy over the last 5-10 years is that if something doesn't work immediately there's a panic and then a clamour to alter it straight away.

Politicians and civil servants then try and chop and change on the hop, meaning teachers end up bogged down in ever changing guidance and pointers. That goes against the whole ethos of Foundation Phase - while attainment is very important, it isn't the main aim of this - and I hope the Welsh Government resist the temptation to tinker this time.

I suppose the only people who have the levels of knowledge and experience to make a proper judgement on Foundation Phase are primary school teachers/support workers themselves. Judging from the full range of key findings from WISERD, there are probably more positives than negatives – but positives don't make headlines, do they.


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