Time to re-think PISA’s place in Welsh education

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There is nothing in education that attracts media headlines quite like ‘PISA’.

Conducted every three years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) measures the knowledge and core skills of 15-year-olds as they near the end of their compulsory education.

It uses a representative sample of pupils from more than 70 countries to gauge relative performance and highlight perceived strengths and areas for improvement.

As such, unlike more traditional external exams (which tend to be specific to their respective jurisdictions), PISA provides a measure by which countries across the world can be compared.

Not surprisingly, this is an attractive proposition for sector journalists (as well as the political elite) and is the closest thing to an international league table of state schooling.

Yet, despite there being less than six months until the next PISA results are published, there has been precious little mention of them in Wales.

This in itself is curious, given the way in which successive Welsh governments have drawn on PISA to effect change.

Make no mistake, PISA has – at least in part – fuelled education policy in Wales (as it has in many other participating countries) for the best part of a decade.

Why then, so close to publication, has PISA received so little air time?

For me, the answer is simple – curriculum.

Realigning expectations

Kirsty Williams’ tenure as Education Minister has been dominated by a re-imagining of what and how children learn in Welsh classrooms, and development of Professor Graham Donaldson’s Successful Futures has taken precedence over everything else.

In some respects, Wales’ curriculum project has narrowed our focus and provided a cornerstone on which we can rebuild our entire education system.

It has renewed debate around assessment and qualifications, and triggered the introduction of new professional standards and teacher education; the curriculum is the glue that holds our education reform together.

But there are sure to be unintended consequences.

I asked in my last contribution to this blog whether putting all of our eggs into the basket of Successful Futures has meant we have lost sight of other things.

I suggested that a realigning of expectations with regards to other key initiatives was required.

Perhaps the most significant re-calibration relates to PISA, and our medium to long-term prospects of improvement.

Regrettably, I have all but written off Wales’ hopes of a notable PISA revival this time around.

In fact, given the heavy demands of curriculum development, I think we will have done well to stabilise our position in this year’s world rankings.

Notwithstanding the restorative interventions that were put in place by the Welsh Government in the run-up to PISA testing last year (including the appointment of a PISA tsar to rally round participating schools), I fear there has been too much noise in the system to distract those chosen to take part.

The reality, of course, is that those distractions – and the reform agenda currently working its way through Welsh education – will not impact on PISA outcomes for a number of years.

In effect, the PISA results of 2019 will be reflective only of a bygone system dating back several ministers.

Indeed, they are not in any way a reflection on the revamped system we are in the process of creating.

Uncomfortable questions

To recap, the last time PISA results were published in December 2016 (a year after tests were sat) Welsh teenagers scored:

  • 477 points in reading – 16 points below the PISA average
  • 478 points in maths – 12 points below the PISA average
  • 485 points in science – 8 points below the PISA average

Wales’ return was another disappointment, with Kirsty Williams conceding that ‘we are not yet where we want to be’.

But given that it will be another three PISAs before pupils educated through new curriculum arrangements sit the tests (in 2027), it may be that we have to wait a little while longer for marked improvement.

This raises a series of uncomfortable questions.

For example, one must ask if it is acceptable that after five PISA tranches, and countless political promises, the goalposts can be shifted yet again.

Is it right that having waited 12 years for an upsurge in PISA performance, we might now have to resign ourselves to a further decade of patience?

Paradoxically, what we definitely do not need – regardless of what happens in December – is yet another change in direction.

The Welsh Government’s tendency to lurch from one policy to the next (very often, in response to PISA) has been prescribed by the OECD as breeding ‘reform fatigue’ – a condition from which all in education have suffered.

Instead, we need to be wary of knee-jerk reactions and, assuming there is broad commitment to the reform agenda set in train, remain true to our set course.

The temptation to tinker, and prove to the electorate that action is being taken to address our PISA struggles, must be resisted.

That is not to say PISA doesn’t matter and we should not dismiss the OECD’s assessment of our pupils’ knowledge and skills, regardless of how difficult it is to digest.

But it is not the be-all and end-all and there are a wide range of performance measures we can use to test the temperature of Welsh education.

Measured response

Wales’ education system has matured to a level at which it knows well its deficiencies – and there are actions in place to tackle them.

Perhaps, then, it is time to re-think PISA and its place within our reform agenda.

There is certainly an argument that says there is too much emphasis on international testing, and PISA alone should not dictate what happens in Welsh schools.

A healthy debate on our future involvement in and aspirations for PISA, would be no bad thing.

We cannot return to the same old arguments every three years and a more measured response is required moving forward.

We must be resolute, not reactionary – and resist the inevitable calls for an about-turn.

Take, for example, results published in 2010; described as a shock to what former Education Minister Leighton Andrews coined a ‘complacent system’, they triggered a radical overhaul of government policy.

But this year’s scores should come as no surprise, and Kirsty Williams must do as she did last time and fight against those baying for blood.

Education in Wales since devolution has been characterised by near-constant churn; no sooner has an initiative begun, than it has been shut down and, in many cases, actually reversed.

This is, to some extent, a by-product of the uncertain and volatile environment in which politicians operate – the lifespan of cabinet ministers is notoriously short and I haven’t come across a single one that doesn’t want to leave their mark during their time in office.

Inevitably, leaving a mark normally translates into ‘revolutionary’ new policy and, very often, change for change’s sake.

That is why, as I have written before, Ms Williams deserves great credit.

In following through a Labour politician’s plans (let’s not forget that Huw Lewis was the architect for the vast majority of current policy), she put the system’s needs before her own.

But she must do so again – and whatever December’s results have in store for Wales, Ms Williams must stand firm before the inevitable media storm.

So too must all actors engaged in Welsh education; only by speaking with confidence about our practice and aspirations for the future can we ensure our reform agenda is not derailed again.

If we truly believe in what we in Wales are doing, then we cannot be architects of our own downfall.

When the winds of change blow and the pressure to deviate grows, we must hold our nerve… even if more PISA pain is the price we have to pay.

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A curriculum crossroads – don’t miss the chance to have your say

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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.

A critical time for education in Wales

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Politicians, party members and activists will be out in force over the coming weeks for the spring conference season.

But for educators in Wales, conference season is already in full swing.

Whether it be national headteacher gatherings, regional consortia events, pioneer workshops or the ongoing Welsh Government curriculum roadshow, schools have been in hot demand.

We can discuss the financial – and human – cost of such activity some other time, but for now I want to reflect on some of the key messages emanating from these meetings (a handful of which I have attended).

Not surprisingly, all roads currently lead to April 30, when the first iteration of Wales’ new national curriculum will land on the desks of school leaders up and down the country.

As previously noted, it will be a monumental moment in our education reform journey.

How those school leaders react and respond to what is published will, in my opinion, dictate what happens in the next three years ahead of statutory roll-out in 2022.

I cannot overstate the significance of Easter’s big reveal.

And, judging by educators’ bustling desk diaries, neither does our ruling Welsh Government.

The biggest risk

Speaking at a recent primary headteacher conference, Director of Education Steve Davies was at pains to rally the troops.

There was little to disagree with in his analysis that April 30 would be ‘critical’ to the evolution of our new national curriculum, and there was due acknowledgement of the different challenges this would present.

Mr Davies was refreshingly candid, warning that publication of the draft curriculum was in fact ‘the biggest risk’ facing Wales’ reform agenda.

As such, he made clear the need to ensure all school leaders, as the focal points of their wider school communities, have everything they need in order to engage with the curriculum documents effectively.

Messaging, he said, needs clarity and resistance to change must be countered by clear direction and a strong rationale.

After all, if headteachers are not suitably au fait with the juggernaut coming up on the not-too-distant horizon, there is little chance of them cascading appropriately requisite information to colleagues.

“The staff in your school will look to you and listen to you on April 30, and they will be looking for your response… we need you to ready your staff and your communities to be able to respond to the consultation.”

A consultation on the draft curriculum will run from publication until July (after which qualifications will be opened up to debate), and the education system is strongly encouraged to have its say.

Confirmation from Mr Davies that ‘we do expect real additions and changes to the curriculum’ as a result, was a very welcome intervention and will hopefully go some way to allaying the concerns of those who believe only in consultation for consultation’s sake.

Curriculum evolution

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 (let’s not forget the pressure on politicians to justify their reform agenda).

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 Graham Donaldson’s Successful Futures 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.

Mr Davies noted that it was inevitable that schools would be coming to curriculum development in different ways, given the markedly different circumstances facing many in Wales.

He reassured headteachers that they would, given the essence of subsidiarity on which the curriculum is founded, be able to mould content to suit their own contexts – but, in my view, there must be recognition of the varying levels of involvement in the design process to date.

The reality, of course, is that the vast majority of schools in Wales will be playing catch-up on the curriculum before they have even started.

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.

Putting testing timescales to one side, it must be acknowledged that some schools will be two to three years behind early adopters.

That said, even those that have been ‘pioneering’ will have a job of work to do in communicating planned changes to colleagues in their own settings, with levels of understanding largely reliant on dissemination by individuals.

A series of regional engagement events, devised and delivered by Pioneer Schools, will support this endeavour and take place during May and June to help teachers, governors and the wider education community better understand the structure and content of each Area of Learning and Experience (AoLE).

Workshop materials will then be made available to participants for use in their own schools in a bid to ensure, as one AoLE lead put it, ‘a teacher in Cardiff is getting the same messages as a teacher in Colwyn Bay’.

Shifting habits and beliefs

Mr Davies relayed similar messages from the primary rally at this week’s secondary headteacher conference, where delegates were reminded that successful implementation of the curriculum hinged on shifting the ‘habits, beliefs, knowledge, skills and attitudes’ of teachers.

“If we have not been able to achieve that, the rich curriculum that we want to deliver for all of our children and young people will not be delivered as well as it should.”

Mr Davies conceded that supporting teachers to transition to new ways of working was a ‘massive job’, and there appears sound rationale for changing accountability mechanisms to better reflect the needs of our education system moving forward.

But the underlying message from both headteacher conferences was clear – the Welsh Government cannot by itself bring about the level of change required.

Education Minister Kirsty Williams can steer a course and help create the conditions for Successful Futures to thrive.

But ultimately, our commander-in-chief is heavily reliant upon an army of willing foot soldiers, without whom the curriculum is doomed to fail.

So we in Wales are met with two very clear options.

We either engage with the new curriculum outline (whether that be mapping a route for statutory implementation, or merely responding to the forthcoming consultation) – or we sit back and wait for the finished article to be presented to us.

Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of questions still to be answered – and I too have my concerns (more of them in my next blog).

But for the time being, it is imperative that we join in the conversation.

We cannot sit idly by and let the opportunity to feed into Successful Futures fall by the wayside.

Like it or not, curriculum reform is coming – and it is our responsibility to make the very best of it we can.

Scotland’s education system a pioneer for Wales

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It’s exactly three weeks before Wales’ rugby elite lock horns with Scotland at Murrayfield.

By that point, Wales will either be well on their way to a Grand Slam – or likely playing for second behind our nearest neighbours, England.

Whatever the permutations, the surety is that this year’s battle of Celtic pride will be as keenly contested and hard fought as the last.

Off the field, the atmosphere in Edinburgh will be cordial and relaxed; a travelling army of Welsh men and women will be suitably welcomed and rivalries put to one side.

But it doesn’t need a rugby match to bring two nations together and the same spirit of goodwill and respect is also evident across our respective education systems.

Relations between education ministers, civil servants, schools and teachers have never been closer – for we in Wales are setting out on a journey of discovery our friends in Scotland started many moons ago.

Curriculum for Excellence, seen by many as the precursor for Wales’ Successful Futures, began life in 2004 with a re-imagining of the values, purposes and principles that underpin statutory education in Scottish schools.

It promised to transform education in Scotland by providing ‘a coherent, more flexible and enriched curriculum’ for learners aged three to 18, with a firm focus on the needs of the individual child and young person.

But the Scottish experience has not been altogether positive and there have been challenges – of that there is no doubt.

Lessons to learn

Curriculum for Excellence has been plagued by claims of unnecessary bureaucracy, increased teacher workload and confusion about its aims.

Scotland’s very noticeable decline across all PISA measures has added fuel to an already raging fire.

All this is relevant, of course, because of Wales’ unashamed admiration for Scotland’s approach to curriculum reform – and the fact that Professor Graham Donaldson, the architect of Successful Futures, was himself a founding father of Curriculum for Excellence.

Keir Bloomer is another such expert (he too was integral to the birth of Curriculum for Excellence) and was, for me at least, the main draw at a recent education event hosted by the Institute of Welsh Affairs (IWA).

Bloomer was the keynote speaker at the launch of the IWA’s Common Purposes report into Wales’ curriculum project and was not shy in coming forward with lessons we can learn from colleagues north of the border.

Curriculum for Excellence,” he warned, “has fallen well short of its potential”.

That no attempt was made to explain proposed changes to the broader community or to engage the teaching profession in ‘any serious exploration of the big ideas and how they might be put into practice’ was, in his view, Scotland’s first big mistake.

“In short, too much was taken for granted. As a result, Curriculum for Excellence has always been subject to a myriad of conflicting interpretations.”

Bloomer continued by suggesting not enough was done to build capacity in the Scottish system, noting that while some teachers welcomed the freedom afforded by the new curriculum, ‘many more felt insecure and threatened’.

“This lack of professional self-confidence resulted in numerous calls for guidance. The original aim had been to develop a limited amount of high-level advice. Soon, however, a large-scale industry had been created, producing guidance by the ton.”

Another ‘source of difficulty’ according to Bloomer, was the ‘insistence on lock-step change’, with all schools expected to fall into line together.

The Pioneer approach to curriculum development in Wales was, he said, a welcome development and an indication ‘that this is a lesson that has already been learned’.

Further warnings relating to the introduction of new qualifications, and the subsequent knock-on effect to teacher practice, were well made, as was the need for teachers to be ‘brought onside and encouraged’.

This, in my view, was a particularly salient point as we draw ever nearer to the first published draft of our new curriculum.

Mature and honest dialogue

Available online at the end of April, working documents will be open to consultation and those who have not yet been involved in the development process must be given the chance to have their say.

As I have written here before, Easter’s big reveal has major implications and how practitioners react to that which they have been presented will likely dictate how successfully our fledgling curriculum evolves.

Above all else, the professional voice must be heard.

A mature and honest dialogue is needed, and the Welsh Government can earn trust by heeding practitioner concerns.

True, a new collaborative ethos and brokering of relationships between policymakers and the people they serve has had a galvanizing effect, but there are many more schools out of the curriculum loop than in it – and the Welsh Government must win hearts and minds all over again.

Bloomer resolved that it was ‘impossible to view the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence as anything other than seriously flawed’ and his suggestion that Wales should ‘find out what Scotland did and do something different’ when enacting Successful Futures was nothing if not sobering.

Nevertheless, despite the obvious faults in Scotland’s curriculum adventure, Bloomer remains resolute that ‘Scottish education is much the better for Curriculum for Excellence’ – something that we will be well advised to remember when times (inevitably) get tough.

Overcoming inertia

I was given my own, first-hand insight into the realities of curriculum design and development during a study visit to Scotland last year.

There I spoke with teachers, student-teachers and teacher educators – and each had a different reason as to why Curriculum for Excellence had faltered.

This, in and of itself, is interesting – and suggests there were a number of different things conspiring against the curriculum project.

One considered the pace of roll-out decisive, with school leaders given insufficient time to grapple with what was being asked of them.

Despite there being six years between the publication of the curriculum’s founding document and its initial implementation in 2010, teachers were apparently underprepared for its arrival in schools.

Another contributing factor was said to be the new administrative demands on teachers. It was clear that forward-planning and lesson preparation was weighing heavy on some (ironically, the lack of ready-made resources was considered a huge drawback).

Perhaps hardest to swallow was the suggestion that teachers were not mentally geared for change.

‘Overcoming inertia is quite difficult,’ said one expert in the field, who felt many had been ‘de-skilled and de-motivated’ by years of prescription.

It served as a timely reminder that curriculum reform demands a lot of the teaching profession and, as Bloomer suggested, will take a significant number out of their comfort zone.

Ensuring teachers are properly supported through the forthcoming transition will, of course, be paramount.

Sign posts

Looking back, it would have been inconceivable that comparisons with Scotland were not made – for good or ill – and they will doubtless continue long into the future. There is no getting away from that.

But one of the great benefits of having drawn so heavily upon the experience of another country is that we are not working in the dark, and there will be plenty of sign posts to guide us along the way.

The ongoing change process is daunting, yes – but it is not quite an adventure into the unknown. In some respects, Scotland’s is our pioneer system, as pioneer schools have been for colleagues in Wales.

They have given us a lead by which to follow.

That’s not to suggest that curriculum reform was ever going to be easy – and we are sure to face many more challenges in the coming months and years.

It is important, therefore, that we listen and learn from the likes of Bloomer – and not dismiss out of hand anything with more negative connotations, regardless of how painful some of it may sound.

It would be folly to turn a blind eye to constructive criticism (we must not lose sight of our moral obligation to making this work), and there needs to be an open forum for debate between policymakers and the system at large.

Indeed, it was reassuring to see so many high-ranking civil servants in Bloomer’s audience – not least Education Minister Kirsty Williams and her head of department. That they were present to hear his rallying cry certainly implies that the Welsh Government is open to suggestions.

That said, we cannot look to Scotland as some kind of panacea – our sister system will not have all the answers and the trick will be working out what of their experience is applicable to the Welsh context, and what is not.

And given that there are countless other countries plotting a similar curriculum course, we must continue to look far and wide for inspiration. We cannot, for want of a better phrase, put all of our eggs in one basket.

Managing change – curriculum, assessment and the professional voice

blog jan 19

In my last contribution to this blog, I suggested that it would soon be ‘sink or swim’ time for Wales’ new national curriculum.

Some agreed, others did not. We are all entitled to our opinions – and I certainly haven’t wavered from my own.

There are just three months left before the publication of the working document designed to support teaching and learning in Wales moving forward.

How teachers and school leaders respond to the draft curriculum when it lands in their inboxes at the end of April (publication is likely to be digital), will be hugely significant.

It will, in my view, set the tone for the entire implementation phase leading up to statutory roll-out in 2022.

That is why management of expectations is essential and, for me, the key priority (over and above final editing) between now and Easter.

Depending on schools’ involvement in the creative process, there is sure to be both excitement and apprehension as to what has been developed.

The pioneers charged with driving forward the curriculum have been nothing if not earnest and the fruits of three years’ labour will soon be disseminated.

The waiting for those at arm’s-length (or further) from co-construction is almost over and they will soon have something tangible to take with them to staff meetings.

If messaging is clear and supporting materials give schools the tools they need to fly, engagement will be productive and meaningful.

If direction is weak and the draft document raises more questions than it provides answers, we have a problem.

Easter’s big reveal has major implications.

Mature and honest dialogue

Curriculum and professional learning pioneers gathered in Cardiff this week to consider how best to go about readying the wider workforce for April’s milestone.

And it was there that representatives from schools involved in the development process were reminded of their responsibility to defend the professional decisions taken since the curriculum journey began in 2015.

The Welsh Government’s redistribution of power to education’s frontlines does, of course, mean that the curriculum is as much theirs as it is anyone else’s.

Reference to recent negative publicity was, somewhat inevitably, made and the elephant in the room quickly called out.

Pioneers were told that criticism levelled by the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) and the Association of Directors of Education in Wales (ADEW) in their evidence to the Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee, was in no way a reflection on the commitment and endeavour of schools.

This was, I think, an important intervention, albeit nobody involved in the curriculum reform process should fear feedback – positive or negative.

When key stakeholders within Wales’ education system are given licence to comment on draft documents – between April and July – they must do so freely, and without fear or favour.

A mature and honest dialogue is needed, and the Welsh Government’s consultation of the profession will be crucial in ironing out potential pitfalls.

Colleagues’ comments must be taken in the right spirit and those steering curriculum development must not take personally constructive contributions from outside the inner circle.

Nothing can be dismissed out of hand.

That said, it makes absolutely no sense at this stage of the process to pour scorn on what we are seeking to achieve.

Long-time readers will remember my own misgivings with regard to Successful Futures, and I maintain that whole-scale curriculum reform came at the wrong time.

But the publication of a White Paper for a Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Bill, to enshrine in legislation proposed changes to existing arrangements, is imminent – and I will be extremely happy to be proven wrong.

As educators, we have a moral obligation to get this right – if problems are identified, solutions must be offered.

And yes, it follows that those in authority must be inclined to listen, respond and take heed of practitioner concerns.

New approach to accountability

But, of course, you can’t have curriculum without assessment and confirmation that draft ‘evaluation and improvement arrangements’ will be published in tandem is to be welcomed.

We need to be able to chart progression and hold schools accountable for the quality of education they provide.

Accountability… in crude terms, the means by which taxpayers in the public sphere ensure a return on their investment.

But a word with oppressive connotations. Being held to account is one thing, but what subsequent judgments are used for – and the likely repercussions – is something else altogether.

In Welsh education, a punitive and ‘high stakes’ accountability regime has left schools on red alert.

It has disenchanted teachers, reduced classroom practice to tick-boxing and led to unintended consequences that have, perversely, made children’s experiences worse.

In many cases, there is a siege mentality, particularly towards the inspectorate.

But that it is not to say accountability should be axed and I can’t be the only one with Leighton Andrews’ immortal – ‘we took our eye off the ball’ – words still ringing in my ears.

We left the handbrake off once before – and we can ill afford to do it again.

Finding a workable balance is the primary goal here, although doing so is far easier said than done.

Comparing schools is like comparing apples and oranges. Each one is different and no single set of criteria will ever balance the equation.

As a result, we in Wales have what the vast majority of the world’s education systems have – a muddled, overlapping and often contradictory quality assurance process.

Schools are accountable to governing bodies, regional consortia, local authorities, the Welsh Government, Estyn and, of course, parents and guardians.

They are benchmarked against GCSE outcomes, the results of National Reading and Numeracy Tests, attendance rates and teacher assessments, to name but a few.

National School Categorisation, with its colour-coded support system, is the closest schools come to being ranked outright.

Despite the Welsh Government’s protestations, comparisons with league tables – still in operation and attracting fierce criticism in England – were perhaps inevitable.

But the mood music is changing – and with it, fresh optimism that a new approach to education in Wales will release the valve on browbeaten practitioners.

Indeed, the fact that policymakers have seen fit to underpin Wales’ new accountability arrangements with four guiding principles – of being fair, coherent, proportionate and transparent – suggests they haven’t always been thus.

Estyn’s ‘gap year’

Early iterations suggest, as has been trailed, that self-evaluation processes will be strengthened and used across all tiers of the education system to better support learning and improvement.

Self-evaluation will be ‘authenticated’ by regional consortia and, pending validation, allow schools earned autonomy from the inspectorate.

What we don’t yet know is how the Welsh Government will respond to Professor Graham Donaldson’s review of Estyn (albeit some of his recommendations, like self-evaluation, have been quietly adopted regardless).

It is getting on for eight months since the curriculum doyen’s report was published (it took half that for the Welsh Government to respond to Successful Futures), which hints at internal wrangling over some of its key findings.

The most striking of which was, perhaps, Donaldson’s recommendation that school inspections be paused for a year while the system transitions from its old ways of working.

The rationale for doing so appears sound – schools will need time and space to adapt to new arrangements, and inspectors themselves need opportunity to familiarise themselves with revised expectations.

It is my understanding that the ‘partial suspension’ of Estyn inspections will be rubber-stamped and likely take place during the 2020-21 academic year.

This seems entirely sensible in the run-up to first formal teaching of the new curriculum in 2022.

But a word of caution – managing these changes is absolutely crucial and, together, the Welsh Government and Estyn must take steps to ensure a sound understanding of what is being proposed.

Parents, among others, need confidence that Estyn’s reapportioning of resources will not lead to a slide in school standards.

An important caveat to Estyn’s gap year is that support and challenge for schools in most need will remain – and the inspectorate will retain the right to call into schools in exceptional circumstances.

Effective communication of this, and the measures in place to facilitate every other new intervention discussed in this blog, is essential.

After a decade of negative publicity, and a largely gloomy perception of Welsh education more generally, key stakeholders will need to justify planned changes and articulate clearly the steps being taken to mitigate a relapse into old habits.

Furthermore, if educators in Wales like what they see, and are hopeful for what lies ahead, it is imperative that they unite behind the policy agenda being pursued.

The Welsh Government and its Education Minister Kirsty Williams cannot by themselves champion the reforms currently underway.

There must be guardians of what we in Wales are doing, right across the system.

Sink or swim for national curriculum

pool

After months of speculation over her future, Kirsty Williams was officially reinstated as Wales’ Education Minister last week.

Aside from a tweak of her title (from Cabinet Secretary to Education Minister), it’s as you were for the nation’s school, college and university sectors. And for many, this will have been very welcome news.

For a change in First Minister could well have signaled an end to Ms Williams’ Cabinet career (given her personal agreement with the outgoing Carwyn Jones) and, with it, an almost certain change in policy direction.

I’m not suggesting the developing national curriculum would have been in jeopardy, due largely to the broad cross-party support for this particular reform; but a change in leadership invariably triggers a new approach based on one’s own ideology.

I for one am pleased that Ms Williams will be continuing in the Welsh education brief, not least because ministerial stability is so important during a time of great change.

Strong and impassioned leadership at all levels in Wales is crucial to the success of our ongoing reform agenda.

And there is lots at stake – the life chances of our children and young people, and our economic prosperity as a nation, is reliant upon a thriving education system.

We are part-way through a journey and we must stay the course.

That said, 2019 looks to be a crunch year for educators in Wales, as we are to be given the first formal glimpse of our new Successful Futures-inspired curriculum.

A brave new world

It’s a little over three years since the first wave of ‘pioneer schools’ were recruited to begin co-construction.

But challenging established norms has not been easy and a huge amount of time and effort has been invested in the design and development process.

Re-imagining why, what and how pupils learn has required deep and meaningful thinking; setting the foundations for a brave new world cannot be rushed.

An off-the-shelf curriculum tailored to Welsh needs (and pieced together by a civil service in a government back office) was the realistic alternative.

Instead, the profession has been front and centre throughout. The Welsh Government’s pioneer model has reapportioned power and its collaborative approach is to be commended.

Experience dictates that policy is far more likely to fly if it has buy-in from those responsible for implementation on the ground.

But the model does have its critics and involving a select number of schools in the development process has, somewhat inevitably, upset some of those that weren’t selected.

This has created an unfortunate divide between the curriculum haves and have-nots, albeit bringing together representatives from each and every school in Wales would make larger scale co-construction a logistical nightmare.

Another often cited (and more justified) criticism relates to the lack of communication between pioneer and non-pioneer schools.

There is no reason why curriculum developments can’t be better shared between all parties, though until fairly recently there hasn’t been all that much pinned down and available for wider dissemination.

I question the value of spreading a half-baked message and working documents will have meant little to those at arm’s-length from the writing process.

But interestingly, whether you’re a fan of the pioneer approach or not, it is now as good as over.

A ‘critical time’

With the draft curriculum due for publication just after Easter, there is an expectation that all schools in Wales will shortly begin to engage purposefully with the loose outline provided.

There is no longer a need for flag bearers moving forward and, in the words of the Welsh Government’s Director of Education Steve Davies, “every school will need to be an innovative school”.

Speaking at last week’s National Headteacher Conference in Cardiff, Mr Davies described the unveiling of the curriculum’s first iteration as an “important milestone” and challenged school leaders to consider how they would go about embedding it in their own setting.

This, he said, would be a “critical time” and signal the beginning of a refinement process that will involve many more schools than have been previously.

We are, to all intents and purposes, getting to the business end of curriculum reform; there is no doubt that the pace has picked up.

But if you are expecting a ready-made, step-by-step guide – and documents outlining what to do and when – to land on your desk, then I suspect you’ll be disappointed.

It is my understanding, based largely on reports already published, that draft materials will be high-level and open to interpretation – for subsidiarity is one of Successful Futures’ guiding principles.

Schools will have to work out what it all means for them, and each will be coming to the new curriculum with their own unique perspective. The implications are, therefore, hugely significant.

At the moment, schools can I think be categorised into three distinct groups: those that have dipped their toe into the curriculum water; those that have dived in headfirst; and those that are sat firmly on the edge of the pool awaiting further instruction.

Given the differing levels of engagement, managing expectations around the publication of the draft curriculum will be crucial to ensuring momentum is maintained.

Headteachers must be fully briefed as to the status of published statements and given clear direction as to what they are being asked to do.

Collective responsibility

By their own admission, many teachers are not yet sufficiently prepared for the challenges ahead and a shift in mindset, from compliance and conformity to one requiring ownership and innovation, will not happen overnight.

But for Successful Futures to work we need to be bold; we need to be brave; and we need to embrace the opportunity before us.

We need to remain open-minded to the possibilities afforded by the new curriculum and, liberated from high-stakes accountability, move forward with confidence that educators themselves have been given licence to lead us into an exciting new era.

There will be things we like, things we don’t, and doubtless things we will have done differently.

But the power is in our hands and we all have a responsibility to make it work.

It’s sink or swim time.

Schools as Learning Organisations – a help or hindrance?

SLOs pic

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has, by and large, been a force for good when it comes to education.

Above all else, it has provided a means by which the world’s education systems can compare and contrast their practice with that of others many miles apart.

The growth of international league tables and the ease at which one can travel between countries has opened our eyes to a wealth of knowledge and understanding.

Yet while the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) inevitably steals most of the headlines, the triennial survey is but one part of a much bigger package.

In Wales, said package has extended to numerous reviews, stakeholder workshops and visits from affiliated experts, each with their own unique insight into what works in their home jurisdiction.

Suffice to say the OECD plays a much more prominent role here that it does in other countries; it is a critical friend to the Welsh Government and, increasingly, a cheerleader for the innovative policy reform being undertaken in Wales.

The relationship hasn’t always been as rosy, however, and a largely critical report by the OECD in 2014 warned there was ‘no consolidated approach’ to supporting schools in implementing new policies.

Improving Schools in Wales: An OECD Perspective proposed a ‘comprehensive strategy’ for system-building and served as a stark reminder of the significant challenge ahead.

It is with this context in mind that I write the following short analysis of one of the OECD’s more recent ventures – Schools as Learning Organisations (SLOs).

Well-received by the profession

Wales’ SLO model was developed in partnership by schools, regional education consortia, Estyn, the emerging National Academy for Educational Leadership, the Welsh Government and the OECD between November 2016 and July 2017.

The model was released, somewhat quietly, in November 2017 and a report penned by the OECD and published in October assesses the extent to which schools in Wales have developed as learning organisations in the intervening period.

The report makes a number of interesting observations, not least that ‘the majority of schools in Wales seem well on their way towards developing as learning organisations’.

A positive statement of intent if ever there was one, although the report warns shortly after that ‘a considerable proportion of schools are still far removed from realising this objective’.

Similar claims are made as you work your way through the document, most notably:

‘The evidence suggests that Wales’ SLO policy has been well received by the education profession. Its justification, logic and its place in the larger curriculum reform effort is starting to be understood by parts of the education profession and other stakeholders in Wales, although there is clearly more work to be done here.’

Comments such as these have raised a number of eyebrows within the academic community, given just 1,703 staff from 178 schools are referenced as having contributed to the supporting SLO survey (latest figures show there were 68,238 teaching and learning support staff working across 1,521 schools in Wales earlier this year).

I for one would question just how many people have been exposed to the SLO model – or indeed, how many are even aware of its existence.

It is not yet a fabric of our education system and to suggest otherwise would be folly; indeed, an understanding of the principles that underpin the model cannot be confused with an unmitigated understanding of the model itself.

And you can hardly blame schools, considering the astonishing pace of change in Welsh education currently.

That is not to say there is no appetite to engage in matters relating to SLOs and, in fact, the report makes clear that developing ‘a culture of enquiry, innovation and exploration’ is by no means fantasy:

‘The OECD team were struck by a change in attitudes compared to the OECD 2014 review. At that time, it found an education profession that seemed less open and willing to change and innovate their practice, with some school staff reporting signs of reform fatigue. This situation appears to have changed considerably.’

A change in attitudes is not the only difference worthy of mention here.

‘A need for caution’

A draft version of the aforementioned Developing Schools as Learning Organisations in Wales report was made available to stakeholders at an SLO conference in July – and it is interesting to note some of its more contentious content.

Missing from the final version (but included in the draft) is:

  • Recognition that ‘there is a need for caution’ in interpreting SLO survey findings and that ‘the response rate to the SLO survey was not optimal’;
  • ‘How well the four purposes (of the new curriculum) are really understood by the profession in terms of what they will actually mean for their daily practice is hard to judge’;
  • Uncertainty from school staff about what a new assessment, evaluation and accountability framework will actually look like, and the need for greater clarity ‘to give all schools the confidence to engage in inquiry, innovation and exploration of the new curriculum’;
  • Concern that ‘the grading of schools in four judgments (i.e. excellent, good, adequate and needs improvement, unsatisfactory and needs urgent improvement) by Estyn has driven many schools to focus on gathering evidence to meet the requirements of the inspection framework, rather than utilising self-evaluation for the purpose of learning’;
  • The need to ‘pay particular attention to ‘bringing on board’ and supporting those schools that for various reasons are less likely to participate in networks and other forms of collaborative learning and working while needing it most to be able to develop into learning organisations and put the curriculum into practice’.

None of the above will come as a great surprise, I’m sure, but it is worth referencing nonetheless.

Also worthy of note is the rather unusual back cover of the final SLO report, which is almost entirely dedicated to the OECD and its work.

Entitled ‘About the Directorate for Education and Skills’, it is like any other self-promotional blurb and reads like a justification for involvement in the Welsh education improvement journey.

Complete with a large, unattributed photograph of Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s Director for Education and Skills, it is far from subtle and comes across as slightly unnecessary.

Changing narrative

The SLO conference itself was a largely positive affair, and it was heartening to see so many schools present on their progress to date.

Marco Kools, the OECD’s expert representative, spoke candidly when describing the evolution of Wales’ education system since 2014, noting that “the system is so incredibly different to the one we saw a few years back”.

He said Wales was “definitely drawing international attention” and, indeed, moving at a faster pace than other countries.

Interestingly, it was conceded that the OECD had been “too positive” in its 2014 portrayal of the regional consortia, albeit it “clearly see[s] a positive development in that structure” and the consortia are now “an essential piece of the system”.

The need to “expand the public dialogue generated by PISA” was also acknowledged, with Mr Kools concluding that “we are very good at bringing ourselves down – and so are our media”.

I would wholeheartedly agree that we need to change the narrative and promote better our education system, but I really do think that the developing of a more positive image of teaching must at first come from within.

Those immersed in Welsh education must be more inclined to champion its cause. We cannot blame the media for painting a negative picture when we are guilty of doing so unprompted.

Cabinet Secretary for Education Kirsty Williams told the SLO conference that “all practitioners should be lifelong learners” and on a real basic level, the idea that schools should develop as ‘learning organisations’ is certainly something to be supported.

For me, the more pressing questions relate to the place of SLOs within Wales’ education system at large, and the justification for their introduction at a time of unprecedented change.

Developing new knowledge

The SLO concept is, of course, nothing new and can be traced back nearly 30 years to Peter Senge’s seminal The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization (1990).

In it, Senge described learning organisations as those:

‘…organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.’

Closer to home, the Welsh Government (Education in Wales: Our National Mission, 2017) considers schools that are learning organisations as those with ‘the capacity to adapt more quickly and explore new approaches, with a means to improving learning and outcomes for all their learners’.

According to the OECD (Developing Schools as Learning Organisations in Wales, 2018), ‘a SLO has the capacity to change and adapt routinely to new environments and circumstances as its members, individually and together, learn their way to realising their vision’.

These definitions are similar but useful in articulating the level of systems thinking required to support deep and meaningful change.

Their emphasis on developing new knowledge and experience is particularly pertinent, as is the collaborative ethos that underpins it. Then again, becoming an SLO is not a prerequisite for any such activity.

Who remembers Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)?

Defined by the Welsh Government (PLCs: Guidance, 2013) as ‘a group of practitioners working together using a structured process of enquiry to focus on a specific area of their teaching to improve learner outcomes and so raise school standards’, PLCs have had roots in Wales for almost a decade.

The wealth of literature available on PLCs, and similar modes of professional learning and collaboration, tells its own story; we have been here before and SLOs could be seen as a repackaging of that which exists already.

But as new life is breathed into the notion of lifelong, professional development – and overcoming shared challenges for the benefit of all in Wales – we must ensure that each and every school is given the opportunity to engage.

Notwithstanding the vivacity of early SLO adopters, we must consider the barriers preventing meaningful engagement and ensure that the teaching profession is given the necessary time, space and support to join in.

Career-long learning

SLOs, PLCs, communities of practice – call them what you will, there is an appetite for professional learning and career development across the profession.

It is how we make it commonplace, sustainable and available to everyone that is the challenge.

The £24m over two years set aside to support teachers to deliver Wales’ new national curriculum, promised by Ms Williams last month, is extremely welcome and will go some way to countering the perception that upskilling the schools’ workforce has not been sufficiently resourced.

Ultimately, any school that doesn’t consider itself an SLO has missed the memo; in signing up to become a teacher, each and every practitioner working in Wales made a commitment to career-long learning for their own benefit, as well as that of their learners.

We should not require a new SLO model to remind us of that commitment and while useful as an overarching framework or guide, there is an expectation that teachers in Wales should themselves be taking the lead.

It cannot be assumed, however, that every school and every teacher will be starting from the same base, and notwithstanding the need to ensure all are suitably prepared for the launch of our new curriculum, development opportunities must be tailored to individual need.

‘Establishing a culture of enquiry, innovation and exploration’ (as identified in the SLO model) will, for example, come far more naturally to some than others – and change won’t happen overnight.

In policy terms, it will be important for the Welsh Government to articulate clearly the place of SLOs in the new National Approach to Professional Learning – and allay fears that SLOs are yet another thing to be worrying about in these exciting, yet uncertain times.

Additional structures should be put in place to make life easier, not more of a challenge, and SLOs will only work if the people they have been designed to support consider them a help, rather than a hindrance.