Some Welsh foundation phase pupils 'don't learn enough'
Children at a significant minority of Welsh primary schools are not learning enough through a flagship policy to raise standards, inspectors have said.
The foundation phase is having a positive impact on children's wellbeing, inspection body Estyn found.
But some children of five and six are not learning enough because activities are not challenging.
The Welsh Government said Estyn's findings on reading and writing at some schools were "clearly not acceptable".
Based on research showing that children do not start benefiting from formal teaching until about six or seven, the foundation phase is intended to tackle under achievement and raise standards by teaching children through play.
The scheme was rolled out to seven-year-olds - the final stage in its introduction - this month.
The Estyn report says the approach is helping improve children's motivation and attitude to learning, with boys, in particular, benefiting.
But it adds: "In a significant minority of schools, children are not learning enough in the foundation phase."
Learning is hindered at a few schools - where standards of literacy are "significantly lower than they should be"- by a lack of understanding and effective implementation by staff.
They either do not know enough about the policy to make sure it is effective or are not convinced by its educational value, Estyn says.
'Repetitive and undemanding'
The range and quality of children's work in many schools is often limited, and writing tasks are formulaic, repetitive and undemanding in a significant minority, Estyn says.
Staff have adapted their classroom practices well in most schools, with the best maintaining a strong focus on raising standards of literacy and using the foundation phase to help children improve.
Although there are early signs of positive benefits for children's learning where the phase is well understood and fully implemented, benefits are generally "more evident in areas of children's wellbeing rather than standards".
Chief inspector Ann Keane said: "Although we do not yet have assessed outcomes to judge the overall impact of this approach to learning, there is evidence to show that the foundation phase is having a positive impact on both the wellbeing and achievement of primary school children.
"Generally, children are more motivated and engaged in learning."
Former First Minister Rhodri Morgan cited the foundation phase as one of his biggest successes in office when he stood down as Welsh Labour leader in 2009.
The Welsh Government said it was proud the foundation phase was providing a "varied, productive and motivating environment for children to thrive, with boys in particular benefiting from more active learning".
"However, it is a concern that Estyn have identified a minority of schools where children are not being offered challenging enough opportunities to develop and practice their reading and writing skills. This is clearly not acceptable," a spokesman said.
'Not up to scratch'
"We have repeatedly made clear that the foundation phase's concept of learning by doing should not in any way lead to a relaxation in standards, especially literacy.
"The minister has been very frank about the need for standards in Wales to improve and has made literacy and numeracy a priority.
"We will now work closely with Estyn to analyse their findings and identify why standards in these schools were not up to scratch."
From this term, a child development assessment will reveal each child's needs when they enter the foundation phase.
Plans are also underway for a national reading test to make sure fewer pupils fall behind and a statutory national literacy framework, setting out the progress expected of five to 15-year-olds.