Foundation Phase proves to be a brass bullet

Philip Dixon says the latest Welsh Government policy evaluation reveals again that a good idea is blighted by poor implementation.

A few years ago a senior Welsh politician, whose candour deserves that they remain nameless, approached me about the Foundation Phase. They admitted that they had little expertise in education but wanted to know if this much vaunted development, which put ‘play’ at the centre of the learning experience in early years children, was something they should welcome. In true 1066 and All That style I assured them that ‘This was a good thing’ and that the Foundation Phase deserved support.

I still believe that, but the recent publication of two critical reports by WISERD (The Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research, Data and Methods) which can be found here serves to keep us on our toes and ensure that we don’t slip into the cosy consensus that has bedevilled so much policy discussion in Wales.

When the Foundation Phase was first revealed one could be forgiven for thinking that the then Minister, Jane Davidson, saw herself as Moses delivering the message from on high. There was the usual hype about ground breaking, first class, bravely radical, world leading Welsh policy. The Foundation Phase would be the silver bullet that would kill all our educational ills. It would raise academic standards, narrow the poverty gap, and boost pupil attendance. The reality is a little more prosaic.

As WISERD acknowledges, the Phase is itself in its infancy. More robust judgments will only be possible over time and initial teething problems must be allowed to sort themselves out. It should also be noted that the WISERD reports are in no way damning of the broad thrust and philosophy of the Foundation Phase. Far from it, they recognise its worth and potential.

The Reports are curate’s eggs. Sellars and Yeatman would be pleased. There are ‘good things’ and there are ‘bad things’ uncovered. On the plus side it is noted that “concerns that the movement away from the more formal, competency-based approach associated with the previous Key Stage 1 National Curriculum could have negative impacts upon longer term attainment, do not appear to be borne out by the available data”. Even more encouraging at this early stage is that “there is some tentative evidence to suggest that performance in English, maths and science at Key Stage 2 has improved among Foundation Phase pupils”.

But there are also negative findings, and for this reason I suspect it wasn’t trumpeted by the Department’s press office. We have to thank the eagle-eyed education correspondent of the Western Mail, Gareth Evans, for getting it on to the public radar screen. For instance, in terms of narrowing the poverty gap:

“…the analysis reveals that the introduction of the Foundation Phase is not, to date, associated with changes in the differences in outcomes between population sub-groups, such as those defined by gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background’.

While even more disappointing is the finding that:

“… in terms of absenteeism, the available evidence to date does not suggest that the introduction of the Foundation Phase has been associated with an improvement in levels of pupils’ overall attendance”.

These findings came as a shock to some, myself included, whose anecdotal evidence was quite the opposite. There needs to be more research work done here but we now have to scrutinise these areas much more robustly on the ground.

Most alarming of all is the inconsistency revealed:

“It became evident that ‘successful’ implementation of the Foundation Phase varied between local authorities. It was also noted that there had been relative differences in the successful implementation of the Foundation Phase between the maintained and non-maintained sectors.”

Those interviews were clear as to why this situation had arisen. It was:

“… largely due to the relatively ‘decentralised’ approach to its implementation and support. They maintained, therefore, that the only real ‘national’ influences on practitioners were the initial training modules.”

On the ground there has been an unhelpful variety of interpretations of what the Foundation Phase is actually all about:

“In particular, it was reported that ‘play’ – a key defining factor of the Foundation Phase – had been misinterpreted by practitioners … this was largely as a result of the use of the term in the original Foundation Phase documentation produced by the Welsh Government”.

The Welsh Government also came in for some flack with regard to the future impact of the Foundation Phase:

“… the most repeated concern was what they saw as more recent contradictory or moderating educational policies by the Welsh Government. For example, it was felt that the forthcoming Literacy and Numeracy Framework for Wales, and the apparent increasing importance of the standards agenda, was possibly ‘diluting’ or limiting the potential of the Foundation Phase”.

So again we seem to be back to the old, old story in Welsh education: a very good idea somewhat blighted by poor implementation.  No doubt the Welsh Government will assure that lessons have been learnt, and it is true that its implementation of policy has become better in the last few years. But we still have a way to go.

Philip Dixon is Director of ATL Cymru, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

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