A successful future for education in Wales?

Rajvi Glasbrook-Griffiths insists on some non-negotiable aims for Kirsty Williams and her new colleagues

The Donaldson Review, Successful Futures, Programme of Study, Literacy, Numeracy, Digital Competency and New Deal are phrases in hyper-use in school meetings, school improvement plans and educational conferences across Wales. Add to this concepts such as ‘ambitious capable learners’, ‘subsidiarity’ and ‘enterprising creative contributors’, and one has quite the crowded Wordle. This is largely positive. Definitions are being thrashed out; priorities being assessed and forged. It is a necessary process.

The 128 Pioneer Schools charged with the task of leading the overhaul of Wales’ curriculum and professional development plan are part of a radical bottom-up approach that sees practitioners, as opposed to academics and bureaucrats, take ownership. Certainly, the time has long been necessary for change as Wales is currently teaching a curriculum designed in 1988. Moreover, current levels of attainment are certainly not a point of national pride.

Kirsty Williams’ appointment as Education Minister throws up political questions; it also, simultaneously, brings hope. The latter has been in much need, both since and before Huw Lewis’ announcement to step down from his role. Similarly hopeful is the election of Vikki Howells and Rhianon Passmore to the Assembly. Both Passmore, AM for Islwyn, and Howells, AM for Cynon Valley, are former teachers. Their recent connection with the ‘chalkface’ comes with expectations of a rational, balanced voice to represent teachers and prioritise what is really effective for Welsh pupils.

Speaking to teachers, there is as much optimism as there is apprehension about the new curriculum. A few worry about the impact upon pupils within the Pioneer Schools whose staff will have their workload compounded by the demands of their new charge; many worry about the abstractness of Professor Donaldson’s terminology within the Successful Futures document; more worry about space for the arts, creativity, science and technology; most worry about whether this new curriculum and New Deal will ultimately have the necessary impact on raising standards.

Williams has outlined as her paramount priorities: cutting class sizes, ensuring Wales’ teaching profession is held in high regard and addressing the attainment gap between poorer and better off children. The latter is a direct continuation of policies devised by Leighton Andrews and Huw Lewis, translated at school-level in the form of hypothecated funding, such as the Pupil Deprivation Grant. Ensuring teaching is held in high regard corroborates the New Deal for the Education Workforce launched this March upon recommendations by Professor John Furlong. However, the initial priority, that of cutting class sizes, is new, and comes with the distinct stamp of the Welsh Liberal Democrat manifesto. It has to be noted, albeit arguably, that various studies such as those conducted by Professor John Hattie and the Education Endowment Fund, using statistically large samples, have shown that class size is not a major impacting factor upon learning. Would a commitment to raising standards in Numeracy and Literacy not have been a more pertinent focus?

My paramount hope for the Welsh Assembly is that it gets this curriculum implementation, and education as a whole, right. Wales’ future, in every possible sphere, depends upon it. To raise expectations, regardless of background, and develop high standards of teaching and learning that are consistent is a challenging but non-negotiable aim. To this end, it cannot be allowed to lose its way in vagueness. As such, Ron Davies’s vision for the Welsh Assembly that the candidates standing should be Wales’ ‘brightest and best’ is, to my mind, nowhere more necessary than within the office of Education Minister.

As newly elected members, both Rhianon Passmore and Vikki Howells have the potential to bring to the Senedd their first-hand experiences of reality at the ranch, and employ it to drive forward workable impact. Along with Kirsty Williams, I hope they do so. It is a generational imperative.

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