A liberated curriculum risks entrenching inequality

More freedom for teachers is no bad thing but losing national consistency could lead to generations of learners falling further behind their peers, writes Gareth Evans


We’ve had the blueprint, and we’ve been given draft documents. Now, almost six months to the day that a consultation on Wales’ new curriculum outline was first launched, we have sight of our collective feedback.


The independent analysis of Wales’ hopes and aspirations, worries and concerns was drawn from 1,680 responses and published recently on the Welsh Government’s website. Involving eight authors and spanning more than 90 pages, the paper provides a useful overview of the some of the key themes emanating from the ‘Curriculum for Wales 2022’ debate.


Successful Futures’, the paving document 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.


I want to focus here on the notion of subsidiarity, which in the coming years gives individual schools the power to develop and flesh out the AoLEs in a way that best meets the needs of their own learners. A founding principle of our new vision for education, this very deliberate rowing back from prescription affords teachers in Wales new levels of professional autonomy – albeit how that works in practice remains a bone of contention.


On the one hand, liberating teachers from the straitjacket of textbooks and tick lists will build agency, encourage more bespoke learning pathways and offer children richer learning experiences based on school context and individual need. But equally, there is a widely-held (and entirely justified) view that releasing the shackles completely could lead to greater inequity and segregation of pupils on the basis of their knowledge and understanding of the world in which we live.


The following submission to the consultation, by a primary school senior leader, encapsulates perfectly the moral dilemma facing so many in Wales:


‘There is already wide variation in the quality of education in Wales and the gap between those pupils affected by poverty and disadvantage is not closing at a fast enough rate. Whilst the Four Purposes are a powerful and purposeful vision, in its current form, the draft curriculum will lead to greater variation in the quality, breadth and content of what children in Wales learn which will increase the gap rather than close it.’


It is ironic that having spent much of the past decade bemoaning the high and unacceptable level of variation that exists within our education system, in two or three years’ time, variation – in both curriculum content and delivery – will be actively encouraged.


Widening the chasm


That, in and of itself, is a seismic shift in approach – and an almost complete U-turn to that which we have become accustomed.


The idea that teachers should be empowered to do as they see fit for their own learners is as romantic as it is compelling, and built on the rose-tinted assumption that all teachers are good teachers and all schools are good schools.


A potted history of education in Wales since devolution tells you that, regretfully, this is not the case. I can honestly say that subsidiarity, without any real form of uniformity over and above the very loose curriculum framework they have been given, is one of if not the foremost concern of educators I have come into contact with over the past few years.


There is a genuine fear that if teachers are free to teach whatever they consider appropriate from one school to the next, it is inevitable that gaps will develop and children will emerge from their compulsory education with a random medley of knowledge and understanding.


Granted, pupils leave school with varying abilities and competencies now – but they do so within the confines of a common structure that stems, at least in part, from nationally-agreed and moderated content.


Moving forward, what is taught could depend solely on an individual teacher’s ideology, lens or general aptitude – and without any expectation as to what pupils should have learned by the age of 16, we run the risk of widening the chasm between our more affluent and deprived communities.


Forced to rely on the views of others, children from more supportive families will find it easier to plug holes in their knowledge, not least because of their access to technology or a particularly committed parent.


The need for teachers to develop their own curricula is well understood, but what I find difficult to reconcile is that pupils could end up with a very different understanding of religion, human biology or the literary champions that have shaped our recent history.


Imagine a world in which school-leavers, ready and primed for the world of work and further education, know nothing about the Industrial Revolution, World Wars or Holocaust. It is unlikely yet plausible that reference to some of modern society’s most pivotal moments will be inadvertently airbrushed under the auspices of the new curriculum.


And given the apocalyptic political landscape we are having to endure, that should be a warning to us all.


The solution?


To begin with, we need a grown-up, mature and respectful conversation about what really matters to us in 21st Century Wales. We need to decide how much knowledge every child should reasonably expect to accumulate over the life of their education – and, more specifically, what it is they are required to learn about.


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 concepts or more specific items clustered together under respective AoLEs. An essential core canon of ideas, themes and/or events would ensure at least a level of consistency – and all but guarantee that no child leaves school oblivious to some of the biggest influences on the modern world.


At the moment, there seems to be an assumption that things will balance themselves out organically and, over time, a common digest will develop. But assuming that is the case (and there is no guarantee that it will), what happens in between?


For me, this process owes too much to chance and could lead to generations of learners falling further behind their peers. A national debate on what pupils need to know to live, learn and work in Wales and the world would, in my view, be a natural next step for policymakers.


And in the true spirit of co-construction fostered by the Welsh Government, teachers would be integral to that conversation. It would be up to the profession to decide what the entitlement of state-educated learners in Wales is, and how that is manifested within our curriculum blueprint.


For all the goodwill and positive energy evident in our education system at the moment, we cannot be ignorant to the challenges that distinctiveness presents.


This is an extract from a blog which can be found at www.welsheducationmatters.wordpress.com

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

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Gareth Evans is Director of Education Policy at Yr Athrofa: Institute of Education, University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD). He blogs at www.welsheducationmatters.wordpress.com

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