Gareth Evans considers the ongoing debate around Wales’ new national curriculum – and what lessons we can learn from others in a similar situation…
Curriculum reform has dominated debate among educators in Wales for the past three years. And with good reason, given the major implications for each and every state school across the country.
The end game is that the entire period of statutory schooling should be seen as a coherent and progressive whole. Bitesize chunks of rote learning, blanket uniformity and narrow subject areas with specific outcomes will soon be a thing of the past.
But moving away from prescription and with it, passivity, will take time and energy; the habits of old are so deeply entrenched many know only one way.
It is therefore no great surprise that the overhaul of what and how children learn in Welsh classrooms has taken some serious brainstorming.
While the teaching profession has, to my mind, been energised by Professor Graham Donaldson’s seminal Successful Futures (the weighty document on which Wales’ curriculum reform has been built), there is still lots to be done.
Three years after publication, there is not yet a great deal to show publicly for many months’ hard graft and industry. The blueprint has been stripped back to ‘what matters’ and the importance of laying the foundations for our new curriculum has not been underestimated.
We cannot build on sand what future generations will build their entire lives upon.
Of course, this could have all been done so much quicker. An off-the-shelf curriculum tailored to Welsh needs (and pieced together by a civil service in a government back office) was the realistic alternative.
Instead, the profession has been front and centre throughout. The Welsh Government’s ‘pioneer’ model has reapportioned power and its collaborative approach is to be commended.
Experience states that policy is far more likely to fly if it has buy-in from those responsible for implementation on the ground. But nothing is ever easy in education and Scotland remains an unfortunate fly in the ointment.
The die for curriculum reform has already been cast and Wales’ framework is modelled largely on that employed by our Celtic colleagues. Only Scotland’s fledgling Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) has made something of an inauspicious start and, to quote a native academic, “been the centre of widespread disquiet”.
CfE has been plagued by claims of unnecessary bureaucracy, increased teacher workload and confusion about its aims. Scotland’s very noticeable decline across all PISA measures has added fuel to an already raging fire.
But fear not, Welsh custodians are not blinded to the challenges faced north of the border and are hell-bent on putting right what has gone wrong elsewhere.
It is true that by using CfE as a model, we can seek to iron out the mistakes of our predecessors as much as we can look to replicate and build on their successes.
I was given an insight into the realities of curriculum design and implementation during a recent study visit to Scotland. There I spoke with teachers, student-teachers and teacher educators – and each had a different reason as to why CfE had faltered.
One considered the pace of roll-out decisive, with school leaders given insufficient time to grapple with what was being asked of them. Despite there being six years between the publication of CfE’s founding document and its initial implementation in 2010, teachers were apparently underprepared for its arrival in schools.
Another contributing factor was said to be the new administrative demands on teachers. It was clear that forward-planning and lesson preparation was weighing heavy on some (ironically, the lack of ready-made resources was considered a huge drawback).
Perhaps hardest to swallow was the suggestion that teachers were not mentally geared for change.
“Overcoming inertia is quite difficult,” said one expert in the field, who felt many had been “de-skilled and de-motivated”.
It serves as a timely reminder that curriculum reform demands a lot of the teaching profession, and will take a significant number out of their comfort zone. It is only right, therefore, that we ensure teachers are properly supported through transition, which invariably means access to right and proper resourcing.
Education unions continue to warn of the impact funding constraints can and are having on our schools, and only recently did the Chief Inspector warn of possible risks to the curriculum.
Curriculum reform cannot be done on the cheap and preparing those on education’s front lines for the radical change ahead will come at a considerable cost. Success hinges on a sustained and comprehensive programme of professional learning – policymakers will be well aware of the pitfalls.
The true benefits of the Foundation Phase have, in my view, not been fully realised because of a lack of appropriate funding (Wiserd’s analyses are helpful in this regard) and we cannot allow Successful Futures to suffer the same fate.
Coincidentally, the development of a new curriculum presents the perfect opportunity to reinvigorate the Foundation Phase – in whatever form it takes – to ensure its full potential is finally borne out.
I appreciate that times are hard and we do not live in a land of plenty. There is a long list of competing priorities and we cannot please everyone.
But First Minister Carwyn Jones must dig deep for the children and young people of Wales – and we are reliant on Education Secretary Kirsty Williams fighting our corner at the top table.
Upon her joining the Welsh Government in 2016, Mr Jones spoke of Ms Williams’ “key role in driving forward a world-leading curriculum and raising standards across the profession”.
It is vital she is given the tools to do so.
- Gareth Evans is Director of Education Policy at Yr Athrofa: Institute of Education, University of Wales Trinity Saint David