Gareth Evans looks at the development of Successful Futures and a new approach to implementation…

 

There is a tendency in education to whirl around in circles.

New policy comes in with a bang and goes out with a whimper.

Then the cycle starts all over again.

Wales’ education system has, it is fair to say, withstood a fair amount of flux in recent years.

From Jane Davidson’s Learning Country to Leighton Andrews’ 20 point plan – we’ve had just about everything.

New forms of accountability; new learning communities; idle threats and plenty of debate.

But there comes a time when a system must be mature enough to hold a course and resist the temptation to reboot.

Endless toing and froing will get us nowhere.

Thankfully, there does appear to be broad agreement on the current direction of travel – and Successful Futures provides the lynchpin on which we can base our collective efforts.

Now is the time to draw a line in the sand and begin fleshing out the detail.

But Wales’ curriculum reform has not been without its problems.

Shifting timescales; limited communication between pioneer schools and non-pioneer schools; and a report penned by the Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee that called into question the progress being made.

Assembly Members warned earlier this year that there were difficulties and challenges in translating Professor Donaldson’s vision into tangible implementation.

There are a number of reasons for this…

I want you to imagine a caged animal.

It has spent years in captivity.

It lives in an enclosed room, its feet chained to the floor.

It lives off scraps – and is occasionally beaten around the head for disobeying orders and falling out of line.

Sound familiar?

Imagine cutting the animal free and opening the door to a whole new world it scarcely new existed.

The animal, so used to its closed surroundings, is hesitant.

It creeps towards the door but doesn’t want to go outside for fear of what might happen.

Teachers in Wales found themselves in a similar situation.

Freed from the shackles of top-down reform and allowed the driving seat on curriculum development, these are very different times.

Teachers in Wales found themselves in a similar situation.

Freed from the shackles of top-down reform and allowed the driving seat on curriculum development, these are very different times.

Teachers are no longer passive bystanders.

They are front and centre.

The power is in their hands.

In hindsight, and with the Committee’s report in mind, I think perhaps we underestimated the culture shift that requires teachers to take a lead on policy development.

It would have been naïve to expect our new curriculum to evolve quickly, without incident or setback.

This is a new way of working and all parties are feeling their way.

Trust is hard earned and easily lost.

But momentum is beginning to shift and new relationships are beginning to bear fruit.

From an inauspicious start, pioneer activity is gathering pace.

Over the past six to nine months, I for one have detected a change in mood music.

Optimism and excitement has replaced frustration and disquiet.

It is often said that these are exciting times to be a practitioner in Wales.

In fact, it is said so often it has become something of a cliché.

But there is certainly some truth in the assertion that there has never been a better time to be a teacher in Wales.

How often does the profession get the chance to design, develop and implement a new national curriculum?

We must all grasp this opportunity with both hands.

It will be a while before it comes around again.

I’ll be honest, I don’t know where we’ll be in a decade’s time.

By 2027, our new national curriculum will have been rolled out across the age range.

But will it be radically different to what we have now?

Let’s face it, implementation of education policy hasn’t been Wales’ strong suit.

No-one really knows what the end game is and what the new curriculum will look like.

But if nothing else, Successful Futures has invigorated a profession that was down on its haunches.

A new collaborative ethos and brokering of relationships has had a galvanizing effect and we are Together Stronger.

But we are not there yet.

For Successful Futures to succeed, we will require a consistent and coherent message of what it is we want and how we intend to get it.

Winning hearts and minds is no easy task and positive engagement in this critical period for education in Wales is absolutely crucial.

But breaking down long-established barriers between policymakers and the people they serve will take a lot of time and energy.

Nevertheless, I am confident that in Kirsty Williams we have a Cabinet Secretary who is willing to play the long game.

Her commitment to collaboration and eagerness to break down age-old silos is plain for all to see.

But politics is notoriously short-term and how can we be sure curriculum reform will be given the time it needs to evolve?

Well the honest answer is, we can’t. Nothing is certain and external factors, like the international PISA tests, could yet derail what we’re trying to achieve.

The fact of the matter is, Ministers thrive on quick wins.

Such is their relatively short political lifespan, they live in the moment and yearn for a legacy on which to hang their careers.

In my opinion, the Cabinet Secretary deserves a lot of credit.

In following through a Labour politician’s plans – let’s not forget Huw Lewis set the vast majority of current policy in train – Ms Williams resisted the temptation to rip up and start again.

She put the system’s needs before her own.

In so doing, she gave the sector chance to breathe and if Successful Futures does result in the revolutionary education system to which we all aspire, she will have played no small part in making it happen.

Smart money says Kirsty Williams won’t be in post when the curriculum goes live. So it may be that her legacy is continuity, not meddling for meddling’s sake.

And for that we should all be grateful.

  • Gareth Evans is Executive Director of Education Policy at Yr Athrofa, University of Wales Trinity Saint David. This is an extract from his keynote speech at the Policy Forum for Wales: Next Steps for Curriculum Reform in Wales conference, in Cardiff, in October.

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