Ongoing changes to Wales’ education system are being made against the backdrop of collaboration and policy co-construction. In this insightful blog, Yvonne Roberts-Ablett reflects on her own involvement in the curriculum ‘Pioneer’ process and calls on others to join in the educational reform movement…
‘Co-construction’ is rapidly becoming a key phrase in education in Wales. A recent report from the Office of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, 2020) favourably reviewed the co-construction progress of Wales as a vehicle to achieving educational reform. But what is co-construction and how does it work in practice?
There is no clear dictionary definition of ‘co-construction.’ We are looking at building something new, together. Identified as ‘sharing problems and jointly developing solutions’ (Welsh Government, 2021), this new way of working is identified as necessary to realising a purpose-led curriculum within the Welsh education system. As a practitioner working in Wales, I see this as valuing the role of everyone in the Welsh education system: pooling expertise and resources to create policies and systems that enable our learners in Wales to realise the Four Purposes (the purpose of Wales’ curriculum, now enshrined in legislation) ensuring that all learners develop as:
- Ambitious, capable learners, ready to learn throughout their lives
- Enterprising, creative contributors, ready to play a full part in life and work
- Ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world
- Healthy, confident individuals, ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society
(Donaldson, 2015, p.29)
Co-construction has emerged in response to disappointing educational outcomes in Wales and recognition that previous curricular have been created by government in isolation, often leaving a gap in understanding and ownership of the profession who are responsible for its success. Successful Futures (2015), the Welsh Government-commissioned report into the effectiveness of Welsh education, concluded that the capacity for educational reform exists in Wales.
This has enabled the Welsh Government to combine the knowledge and skills of the education workforce with the academic research provided by its partnership with higher education institutions, and the OECD, to employ an approach to reform that is rooted in co-construction. I would argue that grasping the opportunity of co-construction will enable successful realisation of Curriculum for Wales through a powerful combination of high-quality educational research, professional autonomy and shared ownership for all who work within Welsh education.
Curriculum theory expert, Mark Priestley, argues the importance of teacher autonomy in ensuring successful implementation of these co-constructed policies and systems across Europe. And herein lies the problem for us in Wales.
Every practitioner in the country must understand and have the skills to realise this curriculum, but not all have been part of or have bought into the process of co-construction. In 2018, the Welsh Government published a list of Pioneer Schools that were tasked with working alongside government and the middle tier (regional partnerships for school improvement, Wales’ inspectorate Estyn and higher education) to co-construct the Curriculum for Wales framework.
This framework, published for review in 2019, was then evaluated and refined by further practitioners, with attempts at early trials by some schools in Wales. This has enabled hundreds of schools in Wales to be a direct part of co-constructing the Curriculum for Wales framework.
As a practitioner who has been involved in this co-construction since 2017, I feel this autonomy much more than previous iterations of the National Curriculum that I have been responsible for simply ‘delivering’. Our school feels part of the process, listened to by other parts of the system, and we can see the diversity of our learners represented in the framework. Does that mean every member of staff in our school can say the same? Honestly, no. It has to be acknowledged that whilst individual practitioners representing their schools crafted this curriculum, that does not necessarily translate to all members of a pioneer school community having a working knowledge of the reform. But this is also true of the current curriculum; there is always something we could understand better.
The benefits of co-construction as a tool for professional autonomy is still a developing concept in Wales and I would argue that it is the professional responsibility of each of our schools and settings to take the Curriculum for Wales framework and ensure that our school improvement journeys reflect the needs of all our learners. My school intends to do this through ongoing dialogue and effective partnerships that respond to our professional learning needs. This is us contributing to our self-improving system, the aspiration of the Welsh Government for education in Wales.
As a result of my involvement, I have had the privilege of debating education policy and practice. I have read and contributed to incredible research that is adding value to our profession and have ultimately become a better practitioner and senior leader for my learners as a result. Has it been a sacrifice for our school to be involved? At times, yes. But what we have gained has been so much more worthwhile.
When we need advice and support from colleagues across the sector, we are not afraid to make or take the call, because we have built relationships with those in the Welsh Government, Estyn or regional partnerships. Personally, I have made lifelong friends across the country, who I can email or call when I need some guidance or want to discuss an idea. I have benefitted from time to think, read, debate, and generate innovative ideas for my learners.
We have an opportunity in Wales to continue this new way of working. So much was learnt from the co-constructive nature of the Pioneer process, about the need for time and space to reflect and generate new thinking together; the power of all voices in the room generating policy and practice owned by the whole profession and the power of government hearing directly from the practitioners it seeks to support.
The National Network conversations are being given as a gift to the education profession in Wales as a permanent mechanism by which all practitioners lead national conversations on key issues that are challenging us. An opportunity for practitioners and government to gather intelligence, directly feed this back into policy and practice and create new insights together, to critically evaluate what is working well and why. This is a powerful tool to realise the professional autonomy that Mark Priestley so eloquently recommends for success of curriculum reform. I urge colleagues to take part in conversations and facilitate this in their own settings, if not volunteer to do so across Wales and start to construct a network around you. This is autonomy working in practice.
Has co-construction given me all the answers? Certainly not. I continue to seek answers to the things that challenge me and my school and ‘geek out’ on talking to others in the system, in a way that normal people must feel at a pop concert! I have never felt more professionally fulfilled. But it needs balance. I also need to roll up my sleeves, teach those in front of me to the best of my ability and supervise the lunch queue! This keeps me grounded and able to contribute to policy from the chalk face. We often forget in education the wide transferable skills we have, but it does not mean that we all must do the same thing, in the same way, to achieve an improved education system.
As I reflect on what co-construction has given me, I urge others to join this new way of working and meet the people across all sectors in Welsh education. Get to know them as people, because they are just like you and want the best for the learners of Wales. They will complement the knowledge and skills that you have and together, co-construction may give us the clarity we need to realise the Four Purposes for the learners of Wales.
- Yvonne Roberts-Ablett is an Assistant Headteacher at Fitzalan High School, Cardiff, a professional advisor to the Welsh Government and a student on Yr Athrofa’s Doctorate in Education programme.
Bubbins, M. and Martin Thomas, L. (2019) Addysg Cymru [podcast] A new Curriculum for Wales. Available at: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/a-new-curriculum-for-wales/id1372550367?i=1000497984196 (Accessed 13th November 2019)
Department for Education. (2021) Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act 2021. Available at: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/asc/2021/4/contents/enacted (Accessed 21st April 2021)
Department for Education. (2019) Curriculum for Wales. Available at: https://hwb.gov.wales/curriculum-for-wales (Accessed 19th February 2019)
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OECD. (2020) “Achieving the new curriculum for Wales”, OECD Education Policy Perspectives, No. 7, OECD Publishing, Paris. Available at https://www.oecd.org/education/achieving-the-new-curriculum-for-wales-4b483953-en.htm (Accessed 21st October 2020)
Priestley, M. (2021) [Blog] Remaking curriculum making: how should we support curriculum development? Available at: https://mrpriestley.wordpress.com/2021/02/28/remaking-curriculum-making-how-should-we-support-curriculum-development/ (Accessed 28th February 2021)