Curriculum reform: a new dawn?

Terry Mackie argues that more critical debate of curriculum reform in Wales is required

Extraordinarily, Professor Claire Taylor,  Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Glyndŵr University and Professor of Education, claimed 18 months ago that the new Curriculum for Wales is a ‘revolution’, quieter than the one instigated by Owain Glyndŵr against Henry IV, but similar in “commitment and a belief that things should be better…”


I know; university Vice-Chancellors can get carried away. In reality, not everybody shares historical zeal about Kirsty Williams’ curriculum reform policy designed by Professor Graham Donaldson. Jane Davidson once talked ‘revolution’ in  The Learning Country; Jane Hutt claimed transformative properties for her School Effectiveness Framework but after 2009 the rhetorical turbo button was abandoned… until the new curriculum took hold of our schools.


The new curriculum indisputably is, three years on, the only show in town for Welsh schooling. Nothing else comes near to it in policy heft or follow-up activity. The new curriculum is Brexit-big for schools and their future. Government claims for it are stuck in overdrive. Its marketing has been quite Mandelsonian. This, indeed, is The Big One: The One That We Have Been Waiting For Since 1999.


Donaldson and Williams trumpeted “our reforms are putting Welsh education on the world map”. The Minister, three months into office, lauded the Digital Competence Framework as putting “Wales in a world-leading position…” Donaldson voiced the reform’s ‘uniqueness’, proclaiming “the world is watching Wales.” Professor Mark Priestley declared that our teachers had to “unlearn” much of what they already practise to make this ‘novel’ curriculum work.


There is no let-up in government hype and academic conceit. Greatness, they repeat, is in our grasp if only our national teaching force can “step up to the plate.” That being so, we have a whole lot of problems looming that mirror several previous devolutionary lapses into political over-expectation and policy over-reach.


Has there been any room for critical debate on this since 2015? Serious commentary on the mega-reform seems strangely lacking and dissidence from its vision, in whole or part, would be, apparently, career suicide for native professionals.


This click on wales blog itself has excited just three specific columns on the towering reform since Donaldson produced his blueprint. None of the three interesting columns, all well written, provoked any comments, none, nada, in response to the blogs. How quiet can Welsh revolutions get?


The political class (Taylor of Glyndŵr included) is adamantly saying one thing, but, apart from 10% of others in schools (we will come to Pioneer Schools) and also the nodding teacher unions, Regional School Improvement Consortia and Estyn, no one else is saying much at all. That means at best only one in ten teachers are ‘engaged’ in this most ambitious of overhauls of what we teach, how we teach it and how we assess learning. They are being told repeatedly that their workforce ownership of this reform as its “co-constructors’ is so critical it will be the magic success ingredient this time round. On the one hand we have excitement, exhilaration even, and as much promise as betting the educational farm can take; on the other hand, the vast majority of professionals ‘out there’ appear to be waiting with bated breath for ‘more clarity’. What is going on?


We need to understand there is a special category of curriculum reform paradox. David F. Labaree produced robust research in 1999 in ‘The Chronic Failure of Curriculum Reform’. Labaree’s analysis clarifies classic problems of divergence in educational change:


….curriculum means different things at different levels in the educational system…Starting at the top… and moving toward the bottom, there is the rhetorical curriculum (ideas put forward by educational leaders, policymakers, and professors about what curriculum should be, as embodied in reports, speeches, and college texts), the formal curriculum (written curriculum policies put in place by school districts and embodied in curriculum guides and textbooks), the curriculum-in-use (the content that teachers actually teach in individual classrooms), and the received curriculum (the content that students actually learn in these classrooms).


Labaree’s work takes us to the heart of our current Welsh curriculum reform situation: (1) a rhetorical curriculum that is being over-egged by ministers, officials and commissioned experts; (2) a formal curriculum in theory ‘co-constructed’ with small platoons of teachers but in practice marshalled by consortia advisers and civil servants deciding ‘what matters’. These teachers belong to ‘Pioneer Schools’ (the terminology reveals we are once more traversing another Learning Country model), numbering about 170: they have been subsidised by grants to complete (3) the curriculum-in-use materials for 24,000 Welsh teachers and to disseminate to all schools the fruits of radical thinking and planning. Their additional responsibility, bless them, is new professional learning programming. We will not be able to get into (4) the received curriculum until about 2025 for 14-25  year olds – nursery onwards will start from 2022), one decade after the project started.  


The Pioneer model is high risk on two levels. There now exists a major deficit area of communication between 170 Pioneer Schools and 1,450 Partner Schools. Besides the technical challenges these corps d’élite schools face, of making sense of Donaldson structures, achieving curriculum coherence and progression, devising professional learning and developing complementary assessment, they are right up against the odds on the most complex of all challenges: engaging comprehensively with the peripheral non-Pioneer schools while managing their own time and staffing commitments. Pioneers face the challenge of all commissioned officers and the ranks below. Arad Research, in 2018, deemed that “To date, Pioneer Schools’ engagement with Partner Schools has been fairly limited, often due to a lack of clarity about the expectations placed on Pioneers in terms of cascading information to Partner Schools.”


WISERD, in 2018, also evaluated: “because the organisational arrangements are necessarily complex and time-consuming, some teachers have expressed concern about the expense of implementation, both in terms of the time it is taking, the removal of the ‘best’ teachers from the classroom, and the cost of meetings and cover for teachers.”


Moreover, we now have an OECD Wales report (October 2018) flagging up the monumental task facing all schools in terms of overall ‘policy coherence’. This report concludes that any failure of co-ordination or misalignment across “the curriculum and the assessment, evaluation and accountability arrangements…puts the whole curriculum reform effort at risk.” Wales must heed the seriously challenging degree of difficulty that the OECD has highlighted. Policy coherence is not some matter of drawing board design elegance. Frankly, there is too much policy, too much change at the same time for coherence to stand much chance. WLGA, speaking for the Directors of Education of Wales, has reported this month to the Assembly that it has serious doubts about the quality of the draft curriculum materials so far produced.    


Initially, the then minister Huw Lewis, on the back of latent concern about teacher overload and ‘turbulence management’, included 60 additional Pioneer Schools in a ‘New Deal’ strand to reassess working conditions for teachers under the proposed reform. Kirsty Williams ‘rebranded’ that particular Pioneer strand peremptorily.  ‘Developing fit for purpose practice’ on this enormous scale was bound to be a logistical and communication Sisyphean task. Michael Fullan’s guiding principle that major educational reform is unlikely to succeed without real change in working conditions has been lost. Mick Waters’ pay and conditions ideas in his curate’s egg of another 2018 report is too late and wishy-washy to march in step with Pioneer working on curriculum, or its 2022 full implementation. “Reformers have the idea that change can be achieved by brute sanity”, has never been truer.


The Welsh Pioneers have been working their socks off. They have also been played into an invidious position by the government – and their own sense of self-promotion. There is more than a touch of martyrdom about our Pioneers. Worse, they would be the fall guys in the event of any serious shortcomings of the reform. The OECD warning above is chilling. WLGA has taken these warnings more seriously than others. Their progress report of the reform on behalf of the 22 Directors of LEAs was so critical the minister countered that they did not understand the vision.  


This whole model of developmental co-construction may be thrilling for a few but our teaching force cannot just press long pause for a possible better future, as politicos and academics do. I contend that the flaws implicit in the Pioneer Schools model and draft materials are the inevitable consequence of the ill-considered political decision to embark on massive curriculum reform, as if it were the only educational vision destined to improve our inadequate national system. Curriculum was never the priority problem area. Now the whole Donaldson model may prove unworkable. False consensus has been exposed finally after 3 long years.  


This reform was and is too big, too ambitious, too top-heavy (the experts did all the vision thing after an at best disingenuous consultation then just handed it down, like some rough map to ‘guide’ the plucky trekkers into uncharted territory), too full of curriculum wonks’ meta-language (‘the purpose-driven curriculum’ is pure tautology), mired in confusion about knowledge and skills and, at source, driven by a government still obsessed with identity (all that nonsense about Wales teaching the world; try kids first). Professor David Reynolds believes that too much policy change at the same time as relentless high-stakes accountability for our schools, already operating in a struggling national system, could scupper this whole reform ship.  


New Curriculum – a kind of revolution? Don’t go there. Owain Glyndŵr’s pioneering of national sovereignty was, ultimately, seriously counter-productive for the economy and people of Wales. Soaring ambition has always been a devil to get even half right.


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Terry Mackie, former Head of School Improvement and Inclusion for Newport, will publish his book The Slow Learning Country: Out of the dim into the light on 6 March 2019.  

7 thoughts on “Curriculum reform: a new dawn?

  1. A good article in many ways but Terry does not mention the key factor that is behind the abysmal state of Welsh education which IMO should and must feature in any debate/discussion on Welsh education – The Welsh language.

    Welsh education is used above all to promote and impose a warped and ill thought political ideology to make this nation ‘bilingual’, and no one in Welsh Government is prepared to stand back and reflect on the legacy of this policy after 20 years of its practice.

    Not long ago Eluned Morgan, Minister for the Welsh Language has admitted that no impact assessment was carried out on the performance of children with no Welsh at home in Welsh Medium schools – To my thinking, a huge error of judgment as the education statistics especially KS2 show that children with no Welsh at home underperform in Welsh Medium Education.

    Now, we have a new curriculum with all the problems that Terry and others have identified, and I recommend reading the following –

    Only two days ago Kirsty Williams, tweeted this:

    “Following launch of white paper, a statement has been issued to clarify Welsh-medium immersion will continue under the new curriculum. I want to reassure you that Welsh is fundamental to the curriculum & we continue to work with partners like Mudiad Meithrin.”

    So, the Welsh language trumps all other considerations and more damage to education standards and most of our children will continue.

    Finally, I find immense hypocrisy in this article published by BBC:

    WM nursery children will be protected/sheltered from English language learning, but on the side of the coin EM nursery children will have to suffer submersion(*) into the Welsh language – Democracy?
    Note (*): Submersion is UNICEF definition of an education policy when children are taught in a language not spoken at home and had this to say – “If you can’t understand, you can’t learn.”

  2. I don’t mention it as a key factor because it is not the key factor in this article’s discourse about curriculum reform. You have just gone off on your usual tangent.

    My book, however, does discuss at length Welsh Language, because WL is part (just part) of the complexities that have made devolution so challenging.

  3. I try hard to understand the revolution that “The New Curriculum for Wales” apparently envisions but each time I try to grasp it the concepts spoken of seem to dissolve into an insubstantial mist. Sometimes I think that the fault is mine; an intellectual shortcoming that results in my failure to grasp the profound difference between Keys stage evaluation at various levels and at pre-designated pupil ages and the revolutionary move to “Progression steps”…at pre-designated pupil ages.
    The idea of “Areas of learning” is also something that I have to think about; take “Expressive Arts” for instance. This will, I imagine cover Music theory and practice, Art, Drama, maybe creative writing? Of those subjects only creative writing is not already a taught subject but it does seem to me that these subjects are highly specialised.
    I’m also bewildered by Donaldson’s evidence gathering and conclusions when he was formulating his grand plan. I, like several other individuals, contributed and I was heartened to see a lot of common sense opinion expressed. For instance those wanting more attention given to Welsh language teaching were outnumbered 3 to 1 by those wanting less Welsh language teaching…and so we have…more Welsh language teaching with Welsh Medium schools acting as a fount of knowledge for English medium schools despite PISA telling us that Welsh language performance in the Reading and comprehension section of the test left those pupils the equivalent of a year behind similar pupils who tested in English. A little known factoid there; Welsh medium schools are not only poor at teaching English but poor at teaching Welsh and try hard not to teach Modern Foreign languages at all.
    And then there’s the “Proof of the pudding”. This particular pudding won’t be tasted for about 16 years. Donaldson will perhaps be long gone, as will our politicians and many teachers but we can get a glimpse into the future by looking at Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (laughingly known as the Curriculum for excrement amongst disillusioned Scottish teachers) we can see that that once proud, preeminent educational country has nose dived down the PISA rankings.
    Is it too late for us to pull out of Donaldson’s fantasy future? Not at all. We could do it tomorrow; all it needs is political will and a little courage.

    So, we’re stuck with it.

  4. I understand that there is now a consultation period inviting ‘stakeholders’ to complete and return the consultation document. I found it on the Dysg website but it is not very user friendly, particularly for parents if feedback is indeed desired from them.
    In the real world, as a colleague reminded me just yesterday, there is not enough money for Pritt Stick, loo roll and adequately qualified/paid supply cover. Where is the money coming from to reinvent the wheel yet again?

  5. One point that I would make about the OECD survey; there are 1,521 schools in Wales and the return that the OECD got on a random approach to 571 schools was 178. That’s just under a 12% sample. Many positive conclusions were based on a little over 50% compliance within that sample and disproportionately those positives were in the primary sector where performance pressure is much lower.
    I would never extrapolate a sample like this into general conclusions and it is rare these days to see anyone do so without being persistent in chasing up non responding schools. The reason why is obvious; schools with a high compliance to the questionnaire tend to respond; those with a low compliance don’t. The OECD should have balanced the first wave of responses against a second or even third wave to establish the “state of play” in the remaining 88% of schools.
    I also notice that the OECD is supporting a repeat of the same mistake that the WAG made in 1999 by suggesting that paper testing of literacy and numeracy should be dropped in favour of personalised assessment and that colour coding of schools should also be dropped.
    Those who do not learn the lessons of history …..
    Just to rehash; we in Wales decided to “trust the teachers” so we dropped SATs in favour of key stage assessment. No moderation was put in place and, inevitably, teachers tended to “enhance” outcomes. Teaching improvements stalled. School league tables were dropped at the insistence of teachers and Unions and standards declined. All that was reversed some years ago and we at least knew how far we had slipped. Now we are going backwards just when the changes in the curriculum and the possible dropping of the known and respected GCSE makes evaluation of standards more difficult.
    I know that it isn’t weighing the pig that makes it fatter but you do have to weigh it to decide whether you are giving it the correct diet.

  6. You are not the first Welsh educationalist to disagree with me Terry (Mackie) but curious if the following makes any sense to you and perhaps others, who may share your views?

    Curriculum reform could and should have been an ideal opportunity to look at the evidence and to conclude that the Welsh Language is a significant factor in the underachievement of many pupils. The logical response would be to remove such an unnecessary problem from the curriculum for the pupils most likely to be negatively affected but that can’t happen when education is driven by ideology, not pedagogy.

    Reform is an open-ended word. It’s like changing the price – can be up or down but it’s usually up. The logical view of curriculum reform is that it will improve the outcomes but what the Welsh Government has actually done is double-down on an aspect of the curriculum which is already clearly failing. That’s what politicians do – the response to policy failure is nearly always more of the same and with the same failed outcomes!

    Long overdue for those in Welsh education to put the children first and above all listen to the children – I’ll finish with a quote from an extensive Bangor University study into attitudes of Gwynedd (Welsh-speaking heartland) primary school children:

    Primary Sector
    • That language patterns are established during Yrs.5-6 in primary,
    but are rooted soon after reaching secondary. It was noted duirng
    the last years in primary and first year of secondary that Welsh is
    increasingly associated with learning, structure, routine and

    On the other hand, English is associated with
    television, e-chatting and socialising.
    • A large number (Welsh and English background) have been happy
    to speak Welsh with everyone in primary school – friends and
    • By Yrs. 4-5, begin to be influenced by older pupils at school, begin
    to feel self-conscious.
    • A number state that their older siblings have told them to turn to
    English – the use of Welsh outside the classroom declines
    considerably from Yr. 5 on.

    ‘Reward or sanction’ for using or not using Welsh during school time.
    • Generally, we can conclude that rewarding pupils for speaking
    Welsh is a tool which works with younger pupils and which is
    successful in the short term.

    • Pupils refer to campaigns in primary school and Yr. 7 where
    individual pupils or whole classes are offered prizes for speaking
    Welsh (e.g.,Camau Clôd / Cymraeg Cŵl / Cynllun Cymreictod)
    • Younger pupils have positive memories and attitudes – but the
    effects appear short-term.
    • Pupils tend to speak Welsh in the teacher’s hearing so as to be
    • Negative feelings develop as pupils see that from Yr. 8 on they are
    penalised for speaking English – no more reward campaigns. A
    feeling that teachers’ attitudes towards them are changing is a
    reason to rebel.

    With Welsh only being a school language for most children in Gwynedd, what chance does the rest of Wales have to get the children to use it outside of school?

  7. 1) In Wales we have the luxury of being second down Donaldson’s path. I am sure that within his thinking there is much good stuff but there is also now enough noise in Scotland to indicate the wheels dropping off in key areas. The sensible thing for WG to do would be to formally evaluate Scotland’s progress and, where failures are becoming apparent, identify if these are due to flaws in methodology or implementation then correct. I see no evidence of that exercise being conducted which troubles me. Discovering that you have signed up to something in good faith which subsequently develops problems is understandable and forgivable……failing to alter course when the rocks have been previously identified is not.

    2) In parallel with this great educational change programme we also find that WG is hell bent on ensuring that parents/students have no idea what excellence actually looks like nor how they or their academic institutions might measure up against it. Up until January this year parents could track how their child’s school was performing against similar ranked schools at all age levels from Foundation to A level via the WG web service MyLocalSchool. That was quietly canned following a sham consultation exercise last year which, though the proposal would impact every school and child and parent in the land, elicited just 89 responses. Most of these responses were spookily in favour of the proposal yet, whilst proclaiming to be from educational institutions predominately in the primary sector, chose to remain anonymous ! (Full detail of this charade can be found here Whilst the reporting system was not perfect, (for example stats were vulnerable to unfair distortion by SEN numbers), it allowed parents to have some insight and to provide challenge to schools if they felt they were falling behind a standard being achieved by others in the cohort. It was something we did better than England. Now the first concrete evidence you will have of your child’s educational institutions performing below par will be when they come home with a fist full of GCSE fails. Ironically a leading objection to the system was administrative load on teachers yet they are still required to collect the data for internal use – just WG won’t publish an analysis of it. To the credit of teachers many are able to manage more effectively with the assistance of this data.

    3. The above two points point towards systemic failing – consistently flawed governance, a lack of critical thinking and inadequate evidence based decision making. I fear we are reaping what we have sown a generation into Devolution with policy and execution firmly in the hands of an increasingly home grown/home educated cohort of politicians and civil servants with limited talent that lack wider world experience yet are comfortable within their own echo chamber. On consultations for example, how hard would it be to set a minimum threshold for what would be reasonably considered a meaningful and representative response and only act if that test had been met ? I am sure that in this world of segmented online marketing that targets you on your age group, financial history, interests etc etc, to proactively reach out and hit the real stakeholders impacted by consultations would not be too difficult……..but that would require effort and might require our politicos and their officers to listen and react accordingly.

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