Curriculum cul de sac

Robin Hughes looks at how we can measure the success of the Successful Futures curriculum.

Successful Futures, the new curriculum for 3-16 year olds in Wales, is taking shape.  Now, the many are getting shown what the few have been doing.

Teachers and others from 150 Pioneer schools are active in working groups.  It’s called subsidiarity.

Professor Graham Donaldson, the curriculum’s principal architect, describes subsidiarity in his review of school inspectorate Estyn:

“the reforms have proceeded on the basis of subsidiarity whereby ‘power stays as close as possible to the action’.  That means retaining a significant measure of decision-making about the curriculum, teaching and learning in schools and classrooms.”

Giving practitioners the opportunity to direct reform, and some responsibility for it, is a feature of high performing systems.  It is also a mechanism by which the great systems keep on getting better, according to seminal reports by Sir Michael Barber and McKinsey.

These reports show clearly that progress must first be made by establishing common practices and shared values among the professionals who have the most impact on what happens in classrooms.  That takes significant effort by Government and other agencies, and the effort is more directive than consultative.

Successful Futures is both a curriculum and an assessment framework.  It describes a way of doing as much as it describes what needs to be done.

Donaldson’s proposals make it clear that teachers should not expect a prescriptive list of criteria that is a strict menu for what a young person must know or demonstrate at a given age, broken down into highly specific subject domains.  That is the curriculum we are replacing.

The curriculum has been in place since the late 1980s.

A teacher who is 41 now was age 11 when today’s curriculum was introduced.  Not only have they spent 20 years of their professional lives ‘under its yoke’, a great deal of their life as a pupil was too.

It is a big challenge for the Pioneers to think so differently, and understandably it is discomforting for some.  There’s excitement, too. These are some of the early indicators from work by respected educational researchers at WISERD who are tracking Pioneers.

Adopting a curriculum that is enabling, rather than prescribing, means that patience is needed before good practice emerges.

This understanding underpins Donaldson’s 34 recommendations to reform Estyn in light of the curriculum, including suspending inspections everywhere for a year.

Whilst this experimentation and room to innovate happens, it becomes even more crucial that accountability in the system keeps a focus on supporting learners to achieve.

Curriculum is about content, delivery and impact.  Establishing impact requires objective measures.

The curriculum has four core purposes relating to lifelong learning, creativity, citizenship and wellbeing.  Literacy, numeracy and digital competence will be developed across the curriculum.

Subjects within the curriculum are organised into 6 Areas of Learning and Experience and Pioneer schools have developed ‘what matters statements’ for each of them.

The ‘what matters’ statements are meant to set out the most important knowledge and skills that is relevant for pupils in the modern world.

It isn’t clear that the ‘What Matters’ statements have had significant input from those that receive the learners post-16, including universities, colleges and employers.

I was in an exam board during major GCSE and A level reforms in the past and it was very difficult to get a consensus about what knowledge is critical in a single subject discipline – let alone an interdisciplinary area where many subjects are competing for space.

Proposals for the curriculum regularly refer to ‘knowledge and skill’.  Rarely are the two considered separately.

Assessment for skill is different to assessment for knowledge.  To assess a person’s problem-solving skills, you must first set out the problem for them.  It might involve making a range of resources available. Without careful screening, such questions will always favour those people that can draw on knowledge from many domains and experiences.  The tests can be biased in favour of those who have an academic and cultural hinterland, adding more disadvantage to the already relatively disadvantaged pupils.

Some Pioneers are worried by assessment.  Our politicians and policy makers should be too.

Assessment is the key to establishing progress, progress for the pupil and in the system generally.

In May, Gareth DJ Evans reminded us that poor PISA results are the root of these reforms.  Kirsty Williams has said that “she can’t keep promising jam tomorrow”.

PISA is sat by 15 year olds every 3 years with results published in the December of the following year.  The new curriculum rolls out officially to all year groups from primary to Year 7 in September 2022. This first group of Year 7s will be too young to sit PISA 2024.

The first PISA outcomes from pupils who have properly experienced the new curriculum will be from PISA 2027.  It will be 10 years before we get PISA outcomes from the new curriculum.

Some measure of success and accountability apart from PISA is needed if we aren’t to be waiting for 10 years before we objectively conclude that we are on the right track.

10 years may not be a long time in the general story of our education system but it is almost the entire school life of many young people.


Photo by Pan Xiaozhen on Unsplash


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Robin Hughes is an education consultant and IWA Education Group member.

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