As the development of Wales’ new national curriculum reaches an important milestone, Elaine Sharpling calls on stakeholders to grasp the opportunity to both raise standards and address the attainment gap…


In eager anticipation, those of us working in education in Wales await the launch of the curriculum later this month.

Whatever the documentation looks like – whether it be too broad, too detailed, too confusing, we can take confidence that subsidiarity has been embraced and that the teachers involved in its authorship have grounded the design of the curriculum in research, policy and professional practice.

This is indeed a unique approach and the eyes of educators from near and far watch with interest as to the outcomes of such a ground-up approach.

It might be timely to remind ourselves of the reasons Wales needed a new curriculum in the first place. In Successful Futures (2015, p10) Professor Graham Donaldson outlines a compelling argument regarding the case for change.

He notes that ‘the essential features of a curriculum devised in 1988 reflect a world that has yet to see the World Wide Web and the advances in technology and globalisation that have transformed the way we live and work’.

He goes on to say that the curriculum has become ‘overloaded, complicated and in parts outdated’. Such words should prevent any naysayers from immediate criticism. We have been presented with a once in a generation opportunity to transform the education of children and young people in Wales.

JFK is said to have to coined the phrase that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’, meaning that if the general economy is thriving then all will benefit. Leaving economics aside for a moment, surely this is our aim for the curriculum – if our education system is strong and robust then standards will be improved for all learners across Wales.

Of course, in time, a raising of standards will, one would hope, directly affect the economic success of our country as a strong education system makes Wales more globally competitive.

The Sutton Trust Report Global Gaps (2017) does demonstrate the need for all learners to benefit from the new curriculum. Designed to compare the socio-economic gaps in the performance of highly able UK pupils internationally, the report presents some stark conclusions:

  • Science – the socio-economic gap is smaller in Northern Ireland and Wales. However, this reflects the comparatively weak performance amongst the top socio-economic group, particularly in Wales, rather than any outstanding level of achievement amongst academically able pupils from low socio-economic status homes;
  • Mathematics – Wales compares particularly poorly in this respect, with only three OECD countries (Chile, Turkey and Mexico) performing significantly worse in terms of the attainment of the most able pupils in mathematics. Able students in Scotland and Northern Ireland also perform worse than in most other industrialised countries;
  • Reading – England’s highest achievers in reading are around the OECD median. While Northern Ireland and Scotland perform slightly below the OECD median, higher achievers in Wales fare particularly poorly. In only three industrialised countries (Chile, Turkey and Mexico) are the reading skills of the highest-achievers lower than in Wales.

These are concerning points that signal poor performance irrespective of socio-economic groups. It would seem that in Wales the ‘top’ groups are equally under-performing compared to international benchmarks. The report goes on to say that:

‘There are also important lessons for Wales and Scotland, who are each embarking on their  own approaches to education reform. They have real university access problems too, so the poor performance of Wales and declines in maths in Scotland are particularly concerning.’ (p3)

If such conclusions are not going to be part of our future educational landscape in Wales, the purpose of the new curriculum needs viewing through an honest lens. We have a collective responsibility to raise standards for all at every level of education – from policy to practice; from primary to higher education. No-one involved in education can be a bystander watching as curriculum reform passes by.

However, a significant problem of education in Wales is the attainment gap caused by the pernicious effect of disadvantage. Save the Children Wales notes that: ‘1 in 3 children still lives in poverty in Wales. This is a higher proportion than in any other nation in the UK and equates to almost 200,000 children’.

And so, if ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ then surely the gap between the most luxurious yacht and the wooden rowing boat will remain exactly the same, regardless of how far up they rise?

How do we raise standards across the system whilst simultaneously closing the attainment gap? It is a challenge which the new curriculum must actively address if the National Mission is to be realised.


Raising standards and closing gaps

In his latest book Making Kids Cleverer (2019), David Didau discusses this very problem and certainly recognises that ‘children from more deprived backgrounds are disproportionately likely to struggle at school’.

However, he argues that the first stage of addressing this is to look at the gap more closely. The attainment gap is not fate but we need to understand and acknowledge our way of handling the gap so that we can move forward.

If we consider the attainment gap to be only a product of socio-economics, then we end up with a distorted view of achievement with some children in two polarised groups – the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’.

Yet we know that in the rich diversity and complexity of a classroom, high achievers can be a part of any socio-economic group.

Rosling (2018) goes further and suggests that there is ‘no gap’ – only that artificially created in an education system. Furthermore, he suggests that educators should be mindful of the seductive nature of gap thinking and the impact it has on classroom practice.

This is a provocative statement and calls into question our fundamental views on the purpose of education and its contentious relationship with policy.

If we stop looking through the lens of socio-economic grouping, and look instead at focusing our efforts on what is likely to work for all children, then the purpose of our education system becomes clearer – it is about creating ambitious and capable learners by empowering all children with the knowledge to make choices.

In the Athrofa, our student-teachers will engage with social change and prepare their pupils to be agents of change in society. This means doing more than ‘knowing about’ or ‘appreciating’ issues around social justice, but taking an ‘activist’ stance that disrupts the status-quo and improves outcomes for all learners.

As Didau suggests, one way to address this is to decouple children from their backgrounds and relinquish the view that children and young people can be grouped into the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. The idea of each child moving through the curriculum on a journey of progression is helpful in displacing these polarised groups.

I agree with this view and firmly believe that the socio-economic status of a child’s family should not play a decisive part in determining chances of success or failure in our education system.

Not everyone can be equal in all things and so the enactment of the curriculum cannot be geared towards any particular group – I have already argued that focusing our efforts on what is likely to work for all children is a good move.

However, the debate around this very thing – the how, what and why children learn is alive and well with the position of knowledge at its heart.

For me, when thinking about knowledge, I am reminded of my A-level English Language question:

             The purpose of education – to impart knowledge or to promote social change. Discuss.

Whilst our purpose of education is now much clearer by being mapped into four distinct identities, it is the relationship between knowledge and social change that is still up for debate.

Is there a link between knowledge and social change, and if so, can it be understood in an inclusive way that enables all learners to benefit?

The answer potentially lies in disrupting the lens of socio-economic thinking and seeing the curriculum as an opportunity for every learner. Driving these opportunities forward will not only be the curriculum content or design, but perhaps even more importantly, the pedagogies chosen and used by teachers.

Teachers make a difference and good teaching makes a difference. It is time for all teachers to see the consultation on the new curriculum as an opportunity to become agents of change – to give their wealth of experience and expertise a voice in shaping a curriculum that offers what is most effective for all children.

And then, the rising tide will lift all boats…and a successful future will be equally on offer to both the luxurious yacht and the wooden rowing boat.

  • Elaine Sharpling is Director of Initial Teacher Education at Yr Athrofa: Institute of Education, University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

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