The countdown to Wales’ new draft curriculum is almost over.
There’s only a week left to wait until the fruits of four years’ labour is laid bare in full for the very first time.
Consultation on draft curriculum papers will begin on April 30 and end, as has recently been announced, on 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.
This, as I have hinted before, is not the time to pour scorn over what has been achieved by the Pioneer crusade, but instead a chance 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 after Easter is not the finished article – and there is still time to make a difference.
I for one will be responding to the Education Minister’s call for feedback, and it is with that in mind that I present here some of my more pressing observations – not for self-gratification, but in the hope that all comment will be duly contemplated…
1. 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, unlike the place of knowledge and skills in our curricula, 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 Areas of Learning and Experience (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.
2. A staggered start
Similarly, it has to 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.
3. Quality assurance
I’m unlikely to get many thank yous for this point, but I am yet to be suitably dissuaded of its significance. I have written in previous blogs about planned changes to the inspectorate in Wales, and I welcome Estyn’s ‘partial suspension’. After all, 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.
4. Managing expectation
Finally, a general thought on the curriculum’s growth and the huge amount of time and energy expended on getting us to this point. 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.
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.
A matter of trust
I have not sought in these observations to analyse specifically key curriculum content or particular aspects of its proposed structure; there are people far more qualified to do so than I and I await their input with interest.
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.
To my mind, the Welsh Government has no option but to listen to feedback, as without due consideration of sector concerns we are all set to lose.
Besides, the curriculum cannot be truly owned by the profession unless all have had the opportunity to input into it.
That means being respectful of each other’s views and not dismissing out of hand anything with more negative connotations, regardless of how painful some of it may sound.
For me, so much of the Welsh Government’s ‘National Mission’ for education boils down to trust in the professionalism of teachers to know what to do and when, in the same way you would trust a firefighter to put out a fire or a nurse to tend to the ill.
It is they who know what is best for the learners in their care, and the curriculum provides them with the vehicle from which to revitalise the practice of teaching.
But we must all be accountable for the decisions we take, and with a decade of bad press hanging over us, Wales finds itself at a crossroads.
Do we play it safe, slip into old habits or break completely from the mould?
These are defining moments, and consensus must be found.
Don’t miss the opportunity to have your say on the direction we take next.