As the development of Wales’ new national curriculum gathers pace, Professor Mererid Hopwood calls on all key stakeholders to remain open minded and ambitious for the opportunities it presents…
As the new term races ahead, the Pioneers’ perseverance must be admired. The fast-approaching submission deadlines demand a shorter night’s sleep to make room for lesson preparations, marking and assessing so that another day can be dedicated to the Cause of Creating the New Curriculum. They’re driven, no doubt, by the knowledge that amidst all the ‘What Matters’ statements, this Really Does Matter.
It’s a unique opportunity to ensure that the next generations of learners in Wales grow to be healthy, creative, enterprising, ambitious, knowledgeable about Wales and the world and confident lifelong learners.
This word confident is important. It’s the key that can open the door to the other aims. Without giving our young people confidence, we can hardly expect them to nurture ambition, entrepreneurship or creativity, let alone healthy minds and bodies.
From where does confidence come? It’s said that it was Goethe, the German genius, who first spoke of the two things the older generation should pass to the younger as being ‘roots and wings’. And though there is obvious tension between these two elements – the roots on the one hand keeping us in place, the wings on the other enabling us to fly – we understand full well the point made.
However paradoxical it may sound, we can see how children can draw on firm roots to gain the confidence that enables them to venture on the wings of ambition and curiosity, and to witness the wonderful, wide world about them.
(We should note, of course, the difference between ‘to fly’ and ‘to flee’. Let’s not create a curriculum that encourages an ambition to flee rather than fly.)
How can roots be laid? This depends on nurturing a sense of belonging that is akin to that sense of recognising ourselves as part of a greater whole. As Waldo Williams, the great Pembrokeshire poet put it, this recognition is the finding of a common root under the branches; that one root that reminds us that, deep, deep down, we all share the same story.
I was recently addressing a group of 20-year-olds, all of whom had been educated in Wales. I asked them to jot down one interesting thing about where they were brought up. No pencil scratched the paper. No finger tapped the screen. Nothing came. Only silence. I then wrote on the board a list of dates: 383, 1066, 1536, 1588, 1847, 6/5/1999. The only one that rang a bell in their minds was 1066. The others were nothing but insignificant numbers.
It’s long overdue that we in Wales opened our minds, widen our horizons and set about learning the story that surrounds us in our fields and hills and mountains, in our streams and rivers and seas, in our communities and families. This is a story that includes everybody who lives and who comes to live in Wales.
It’s our privilege to share these stories, this history, and to add to the collection, all of us bringing our own various colours and making it richer. This is how we may strengthen the roots that give us a sense of belonging. This is how we can make whole our fragmented society. This is how we can reach out and grasp a successful future.
I then asked the same group how many of them could speak Welsh. A handful nodded ‘yes’, even though every single one of them had received Welsh lessons for 10 years or more, meaning that they could all therefore say at least something in Welsh.
As the new curriculum works towards fulfilling every learner’s right in Wales to become confident speakers of both the official languages of the jurisdiction in which they live, it’s time to throw out the mistaken belief that ‘being bilingual’ means being equally fluent in two languages.
There are many degrees on the bilingual scale; and given that one of the most important steps on the journey towards becoming comfortable in speaking any language is to have enough confidence to give it a go, we must embrace all the degrees of that scale. As I like to remind people, if you see a sign such as ‘Allan/Exit’ and know it doesn’t mean that if you’re called Allan you must leave, then you’re already on the Bilingual Bus… and if you can say ‘Llanelli’, then you’ve long left the depot.
As with the work of sharing our history and stories, we must have a much broader attitude towards language learning if we want to see this new curriculum bringing us together in a shared linguistic community.
This is not about creating monochrome uniform. To the contrary. This is about creating a variety that’s inclusive, where all of us have the same privileges and the same set of keys to access the big picture-story, and where we all feel that we can add to it through the medium of at least two languages.
We cannot hope to see a successful future for us as a collective of individuals unless we nurture a sense of belonging. Cymru, after all, literally means ‘a shared land’ and I often find myself thinking that ‘The Together Land’ would be a better translation than ‘Wales’, (which in turn, literally means the land of the others, the foreigners).
Be that as it may. Together we need to embrace this opportunity to understand how each of us can play a part in our small, shared country and the big, shared world. This will enable us to raise our confidence and reach the four worthy purposes of the new curriculum.
Pioneers! Daliwch ati! Keep Going!
- Professor Mererid Hopwood is an expert in Languages and Cwricwlwm Cymreig at Yr Athrofa: Institute of Education, University of Wales Trinity Saint David