There are certain dates in the school calendar that are etched permanently in the minds of teachers.
Those involving the publication of GCSE results and National School Categorisation are a couple of the more obvious.
But there won’t be many more significant days for education in Wales than April 30, 2019.
For tomorrow sees the long-awaited reveal of Wales’ new draft curriculum, four years after the paving document was first penned by Professor Graham Donaldson.
Successful Futures, the foundation on which the new curriculum has been built, hinges on four purposes, namely that children and young people 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, ready to be citizens of Wales and the world
- Healthy, confident individuals, ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society
Six ‘Areas of Learning and Experience’ (AoLEs) are being established to help schools achieve the four purposes, and span the entire age range from 3 to 16.
AoLEs promote and underpin continuity and progression, and encourage teachers to work creatively and collaboratively across traditional subject boundaries.
In practice, a resistance to prescription and spoon-feeding teachers standardised curriculum content means schools will be free to develop their own curricula and mould what children learn to suit their own distinct contexts.
Exactly how much freedom schools are allowed remains a bone of contention, not least because of the growing disparity this may cause.
But fear not, those of a more nervous disposition will be assured ample opportunity to have their say on the future development of our new curriculum, with a consultation on draft materials running from tomorrow until July 19.
And if the noticeable upsurge in social media activity is anything to go by, we should expect a rich and meaningful debate on what has been developed so far.
There are sure to be things we like, things we don’t, and doubtless things we will have done differently.
But all in education must be respectful of the time and energy expended by scores of Pioneer Schools – those chosen to co-construct the curriculum outline with experts – in getting us to where we are today.
Equally, Pioneers themselves must accept comment and analysis from colleagues in the manner in which it was intended, and not become too protective of what they have created.
Indeed, this is not the time to dismiss anyone’s interpretation of where we are, but is instead an opportunity to embellish and, if necessary, reconfigure the loose framework that has been put in place.
It is important to remember that what will be presented tomorrow is not the finished article – and there is still time to make a difference.
Now there will be some who question, with fair reason, the validity of the consultation given the huge amount of resource already invested in Successful Futures.
But to my mind, the Welsh Government has no option than to listen to feedback, as without due consideration of sector concerns we are all set to lose – and besides, the curriculum cannot be truly owned by the profession unless all have had the opportunity to input into it.
It is absolutely right, therefore, that Professor Donaldson’s blueprint does not result in precisely the same curriculum he originally envisaged.
If co-construction was genuine and practitioner input heeded, Successful Futures should have evolved from its early iterations to suit distinctly Welsh needs.
Indeed, one would anticipate further evolution over the summer as the creative process enlists more of its actors.
I for one will be responding to the Education Minister’s call for comment, and it is with that in mind that I present here some of my foremost observations…
- Essential knowledge?
The relationship between knowledge and skills is perhaps the most salient of all curriculum talking points. I can’t be the only one tired of this false dichotomy. Like Ronnies Corbett and Barker, they come as a pair – and as night follows day, you can’t have one without the other.
Taking that as read, what Wales needs to decide is how much knowledge every child should reasonably expect to accumulate – and, more specifically, what it is they are entitled to learn about. This, as I have already suggested, is far more open to debate.
Respecting the notion of subsidiarity on which the curriculum is built, there is, I believe, a strong argument for the inclusion of a carefully-considered roster of non-negotiables; things that all children, regardless of where in Wales they study, should have an introduction to. These could be broad themes, or items clustered together under respective AoLEs.
For example, to what extent must our young people learn about the biology of the human body? How well-versed should they be in the work of Dylan Thomas and William Shakespeare? And shouldn’t everybody be reminded of the atrocities of the Holocaust?
Of course, parity of teaching and learning will never be possible and there will always be discrepancies within and across schools (let’s not forget the level of subsidiarity that exists currently). But there is certainly some scope for considering how blank a canvas teachers will be given to paint.
- A staggered start
Similarly, it must be recognised that every school is different and will be coming to curriculum reform in its own unique way. Schools will have to work out for themselves what it all means for them, and while the Welsh Government’s collaborative approach to curriculum development is to be applauded, there have doubtless been winners and losers.
The Pioneer model has created an unfortunate divide between the curriculum haves and have-nots, albeit bringing together representatives from each and every school in Wales would have made larger scale co-construction a logistical nightmare.
Notwithstanding the industry and dedication of our Pioneer Schools, there have been many more on the outside of reform looking in than there have been taking part and it must be acknowledged that some schools will be two to three years behind early adopters.
What then are the implications for inspection – and is it reasonable to expect all schools to have made requisite curriculum alterations, and reached a similar level of delivery, by the same time?
A phased roll-out is sure to help, but it will not by itself balance the inequality between Pioneers and their peers.
- Quality assurance
I’m unlikely to get many thank yous for this point, but I am yet to be suitably dissuaded of its significance. Recently announced changes to Wales’ education watchdog Estyn will see a ‘partial suspension’ of school inspections during the 2020-21 academic year.
This seems entirely sensible in the run-up to first formal teaching of the new curriculum in 2022, given that schools will need time and space to adapt to new arrangements, and inspectors themselves need opportunity to familiarise themselves with revised expectations.
But assuming there is to be wide variation in both practice and process (considerably more so than there is now), then surely there needs to be a way of ensuring what each and every school chooses to do is effective?
Quality assurance of localised curricula will be no easy undertaking and require a mindset shift among inspectors, cognisant of the fact that uniformity is no longer king. And besides, we cannot shy away from the reality that not every school is a good school, in the same way that every teacher is not a good teacher.
A strong, reputable and reliable inspectorate is as important now as it has ever been.
- Managing expectation
Finally, it is only right that we doff our hats to the army of industrious Pioneers, whose commitment and dedication has, for the most part, been unequivocal.
Their journey of discovery has not been without incident or setback, but those that I have come into contact with have been all the better for their experiences. There is no doubt that they have grown through the process, and have received more by way of professional learning than they will have done through many years’ statutory Inset days.
However, we should not I think forget the cost of this collaboration – and, indeed, the significant amount of additional resource implementation of our new curriculum will require moving forward. I will leave it to others to argue the case for more funding (which, as has been well-documented, is unquestionably tight), but one does wonder what this investment – in both time and money – has meant for the system at large.
Curriculum reform has been all-encompassing and to the Welsh Department for Education what Brexit has been to Westminster. Question is, by putting all of our eggs into the basket of Successful Futures, have we lost sight of everything else?
There are sure to be unintended consequences resulting from our intense focus on all things curriculum, which may well mean a realigning of expectations with regards to other key initiatives. The long list of educational priorities needs to be recalibrated.
I have not sought in these points to analyse specifically key curriculum content or particular aspects of its proposed structure, but what I have hopefully done is what all others active in our education system should do: challenge misconceptions, test higher-level thinking and contribute constructively to the curriculum conversation that will shape education in Wales for generations.
Like it or not, change is coming – and it is our responsibility to make the very best of it we can.
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