Curriculum reform: a new dawn?

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

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.  

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.

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