Summer schooling? Wales’ golden opportunity to do things differently

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A fortnight ago and at the university’s request, I wrote an article considering the future makeup of education in Wales.

This of course included taking an informed stab at the possible ramifications for schools – and the different scenarios through which our classrooms could begin opening to larger groups of pupils.

Aside from the obvious focus on pupil and staff welfare, I suggested schools could be given licence to work with universities and colleges to make best use of the high-tech lecture theatres and resources sitting idle across the country.

For if social distancing dictates that schools aren’t big enough to accommodate desired numbers of learners, the acquisition of specialist learning spaces sitting dormant is, in my view, a possibility worth pursuing.

So too was the slightly more radical suggestion that if a reopening of schools in June was considered too soon and not in the best interests of the wider population, we may have to look more creatively at the summer holiday period – and what tweaks could be made to negate learning time lost to pupils.

For example, could we manufacture a way in which school holidays could be brought forward in order to accommodate certain year groups before September?

Pupils in Year Six who are preparing for secondary school, as well as those preparing for GCSEs and A-levels, were foremost in my mind.

Now I can understood fully how that might come across to some – what do I know, right?

I haven’t had to operate a hub for the past 10 weeks, or ring in daily calls to vulnerable pupils stuck at home.

Neither have I knocked on doors, dropped off iPads, or spent many hundreds of miles away from my own family to take care of others’ (you know who you are).

No, I fully appreciate that I don’t know the half of it – and I can’t begin to imagine what some of my friends and colleagues in schools have had to endure these past few months.

But I’m sure all would agree that there is nothing we shouldn’t consider in order to give some of our pupils in most need more time in the classroom.

Indeed, I am genuinely surprised at how little the possibility has been talked about, anywhere in the UK.

Granted, any change to term times in Scotland and Northern Ireland would not be as ground-breaking or difficult to manage, given schools there close earlier for the summer, regardless.

But there has, to my knowledge, been little discussion publicly about the possibility of bringing summer holidays forward in England and Wales.

That was until Friday evening, when it was revealed by one Welsh education union that such discussions had in fact taken place.

Thinking outside the box

In a lengthy statement posted online, David Evans, Wales Secretary of the National Education Union, announced that a number of different options for the reopening of schools had been tabled by the Welsh Government.

The standout idea, described by the union leader as ‘the most radical’, was that schools would officially close on or around June 19 and return the week commencing August 3.

The Autumn term would therefore begin several weeks earlier than normal and be structured so that pupils would have regular week-long intervals to limit undue pressures on both them and the schools system more generally.

For me, the fact that such an approach had been considered was tremendously heartening and I commend the Welsh Government and unions for their ingenuity and willingness to think outside the box in the best interests of our learners.

That said, it was equally disappointing to read that the August plan had been shelved within a matter of days owing to ‘significant issues’.

It was not immediately clear from the union’s correspondence what these issues were, but I have since talked through with teacher colleagues some of the possible pitfalls surrounding the project.

First, it was suggested that given the unprecedented stresses and strains of education in lockdown, many teachers were at breaking point and in desperate need of some quality time off to rest and recuperate.

This, of course, is absolutely necessary and why all school staff must be entitled to their full quota of summer holiday time, regardless of where in Wales they work.

There is certainly no suggestion that teachers should have their well-earned time off taken from them – by goodness, they need a break more than most.

But assuming a level of flexibility is allowed, I’m sure many in the profession would be amenable to rearranging existing timetables and negotiating pre-booked holiday time, given the current lack of travel options.

Now I recognise fully that this would not work for everyone, particularly those co-ordinating days off with partners and wider family, and so schools would need a degree of autonomy to make decisions on a needs basis.

Pre-existing arrangements would have to be honoured.

But one assumes that even if schools were to return more formally in August (let’s not forget hubs have been operating throughout the course of the pandemic), they would likely do so on a reduced intake, meaning not all teachers would be required in school at any given time, whatever happens.

It would be up to school leaders to devise their own rota systems, based on pupil numbers and availability of staff.

20-week Autumn term

The same would apply to schools straddling Offa’s Dyke – families working on either side of the border would need some sort of dispensation to adapt their working patterns.

The fact that term times are already different across England and Wales makes this a challenge that can, with a fair wind, be overcome.

Another apparent issue relates to the length of the Autumn term, which could last up to 20 weeks on the basis of what’s been discussed.

Clearly, a term of this size would need to be chunked so as to give everyone – school staff, pupils and parents – opportunity to down tools and recharge.

Again, assuming not all pupils are in school at the same time, an extended or indeed multiple half terms could be introduced; finer, yet no less important detail that would need ironing out.

The time schools would need to prepare for such changes is another important factor, and I take for granted that staff would be given sufficient lead-in before relaunch.

Contractual issues are, perhaps, one of the biggest obstacles to an August return and granted, time to drum up new working arrangements is a factor, but nothing is insurmountable in this time of great crisis.

We owe it to our learners to explore any and every way of getting all schools back up and running as soon as is practically possible.

There is absolutely no doubting that our battle against coronavirus has been tremendously challenging for us all, and no-one is immune to its devastating impact.

The daily death toll is horrendous, people’s mental health and wellbeing is of major concern and our ailing economy makes redundancy a realistic prospect for almost everyone.

We have all made personal sacrifices for the common good, and I am in awe of the dedication and commitment to the national cause being shown daily by our key workers (which absolutely includes school staff).

But I fear that the next big crisis to face our nation will be educational – for the longer children are away from the classroom, the less likely many are to return.

This was the sombre observation made recently by a headteacher working in one of Wales’ most deprived communities – and his words should be a warning to us all.

The sad reality is that some children will have now gone 10 weeks and counting with no access to online learning, and there is little doubt that those from more deprived backgrounds will have fallen further behind their more affluent peers.

That is why talk of a ‘lost generation’ is, in my view, entirely legitimate however unpalatable.

Allied to this, there are also scientific reasons for wanting to squeeze in as much face-to-face teaching as possible in the next few months.

If fears of a second spike in transmissions are to be believed (with experts predicting a high probability), then it would make sense to make the most of the fair weather and space outdoors while we can.

Golden opportunity missed

As a form of compromise on the August plan, it appears as though the possibility of the summer term being extended by a week, with autumn half-term being extended to compensate, is more of a runner.

But for me, this is neither here nor there and if we choose to go down this road as an alternative, we’ve missed a golden opportunity to effect meaningful change.

So much has been said and written about our return to the ‘new normal’ these past few months, and the need to ‘reimagine’ education for a post-COVID world.

Yet when presented with the chance to radically rethink the rhythm of the school year, I’m disappointed that we’ve kicked it so quickly into the long grass (a disappointment shared by a number of teachers who have contacted me since).

I’ve spent much of my professional career asking questions of the Welsh Government, least not during the current crisis. It was, and remains, integral to my working life.

But as quick as one is to criticise and object, one must be prepared to offer credit where it’s due – and I applaud the Welsh Government’s considering of all options, however audacious.

Now more than ever, we need to open our minds to the possibilities that exist and look for creative solutions to the myriad of problems we face.

Over the course of devolution, Wales has, on occasion, been guilty of doing differently for the sake of being different.

And more recently, the Welsh Government has been accused of following England’s lead in its relaxing of lockdown measures – charges that may or may not be true.

But in Operation August we had a chance to do something truly innovative for all the right reasons.

Who knows, restructuring our term times might never have worked – and we might have reverted quickly to type if plans started to unravel.

But it would have been bold, courageous and with learners absolutely at its heart.

Wales could have left an indelible mark, and shown colleagues in England the way.

I just hope we don’t regret letting the opportunity pass us by.

Kirsty Williams – latest on education’s response to pandemic

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Education Minister Kirsty Williams and members of her senior team gave an update to the Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee earlier today (28/04/20) on her department’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The virtual meeting lasted an hour and the minister responded to a number of questions from Assembly Members.

Some of what was said has been reported, but in an attempt to present a fuller picture of this afternoon’s discussions, I’ve made a note of some of the less publicised talking points…

Key themes have been grouped together using the subheads below, and the session in full is available to view via the following link – https://bit.ly/35aDTy8


  • ‘Five principles’

Kirsty Williams (KW) outlines the Welsh Government’s five guiding principles upon which schools will be allowed to reopen on a more permanent basis. Namely:

  1. The safety and mental, emotional and physical wellbeing of students and staff;
  2. Continuing contribution to the national effort and strategy to fight the spread of COVID-19;
  3. Having the confidence of parents, staff and students – based on evidence and information – so that they can plan ahead;
  4. Ability to prioritise learners at key points, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds;
  5. Consistency with the Welsh Government’s framework for decision making, to have guidance in place to support measures such as distancing, managing attendance and wider protective actions.

KW puts on record her gratitude to the school staff supporting ‘hubs’ across Wales and says schools will move to a new phase when advice states it is safe to do so.

This transition, she says, is ‘not imminent’ and she has not been given a date as to when next steps might be introduced.

Says ‘it will be impossible to move quickly to new ways of working’ and schools would need to be given time to plan for any changes to existing arrangements.

“I’m clear that a return to normal is not imminent and therefore I’m not in a position to give a date as to when we will see more schools opening up to more children,” she adds.

“It is not feasible that we move from where we are now to what all of us would regard as ‘normal’ education – and the operation of what schools looked like before the start of the pandemic.”

  • No relaxing of restrictions

KW makes clear that the Welsh Government has no intention of ‘relaxing any restrictions with regards to education’ any time soon.

Instead, she says today’s announcement regarding the five principles ‘is to provide clarity on the nature of the principles that I would use when coming to any decision’.

She adds that is her responsibility as minister to ‘begin to think about planning for the future’, albeit a change to existing arrangements is not imminent.

“It’s not going to be easy and we will need to give them as a sector time to be able to adjust,” she warns.

  • More pupils

KW says she will only consider reopening schools to more pupils ‘when it is safe for me to do so’ and the Chief Medical Officer has advised her accordingly. She reiterates that school staff will require ‘sufficient time’ to plan for this eventuality, as and when it arises.

  • Practical issues

KW says there are a number of practical issues that would need to be worked through before schools could be allowed to reopen on a larger scale.

Says there will need to be discussion around: which groups of learners are allowed to return to school in the first instance; how settings can be made as safe as possible; what workforce is available to support their reopening; how social distancing may be managed; the implications for school transport arrangements; and the propensity of parents and carers to gather at the school gates.

  • All-nations approach

KW says UK administrations are working on a four-nations basis in response to the pandemic, and she is ‘keeping in very close contact’ with her counterparts in Northern Ireland, Scotland and England.

Says the Welsh Government has also taken advantage of its membership of the Atlantic Rim Collaboratory by talking to educationalists and ministers in Iceland and other parts of Europe, those in north and south America, and in Australia.

“So we’re also looking at the best international evidence in this regard,” she adds.

  • Relaxing of attendance requirements

The minister is asked whether there will be a relaxing of ‘truancy rules’ and the holding of schools accountable for their pupil attendance rates.

She reiterates that ‘returning to school will not be a return to normal’ and in recognition of that, she intended to reduce ‘the burdens on schools’ in terms of data collection.

She says performance measures have been suspended, as has the requirement on schools to undertake National Reading and Numeracy Tests.

She notes that attendance rates will be integrated into this process.

  • Numbers in real time

KW confirms that there is, on average, 518 school hubs currently open each day in Wales, with up to 4,200 children in attendance.

She says there has been an increase in attendance since what is normally considered the start of the summer term (i.e. after Easter break).

Says 5.6% of teaching population is working in school hubs, and 85% of pupils attending are the children of key workers.

The remaining 15% are vulnerable children, with hubs averaging around 600 vulnerable children in attendance each day.

  • School hubs

KW says the Welsh Government has provided guidance to local authorities on the safe operation of school hubs, and local authorities are asked to report any incidents or concerns on the ground.

  • Testing for COVID-19

KW says that, according to Public Health Wales, 15 teachers in Wales have been tested for COVID-19, of which two have come back positive.

  • Vulnerable children

KW says supporting vulnerable children through the pandemic is a challenge for all corners of the UK, and she is working across government departments and with colleagues in Social Services to meet the needs of these pupils.

She says the fact that numbers attending school hubs are small ‘is in some ways a success of our public health messages’ because they demonstrate that parents have been heeding government advice to use them only if absolutely necessary.

However, she acknowledges that there remains concerns about some children who have been at home during the outbreak.

Says she has been given assurance from local authorities that children and young people with a social worker have been risk-assessed on a multi-agency basis and are receiving of support in a number of ways.

In terms of schools’ responsibility to support vulnerable learners, she says: “My expectation is that schools should remain in contact with children and continue to identify vulnerable children… and should continue to refer children to children’s services if they have any concerns.”

She adds that there has been ‘a real effort on behalf of educationalists and Social Services staff to really reach out to families to make sure that they are aware of the support that is available’.

  • Specialist provision

Says the Welsh Government has been working with local authorities to ensure specialist provision is available as appropriate for children with more profound learning needs.

  • Attainment gap

KW says she recognises that statistics show that learning loss has the potential to widen the attainment gap between learners from deprived backgrounds and their more affluent peers.

She stresses that the impact of a loss of learning on our most vulnerable learners will need to be properly considered ‘as we think about what the new normal may look like’.

She notes that the impact may be different dependent on where pupils are on their educational journey, suggesting that the potential loss may be different for younger children than it is for older children nearing the end of their compulsory education.

  • Digital disadvantage

KW says the Welsh Government is ‘very aware’ of its responsibility towards children’s rights and ‘doing whatever we can to ensure that children have an equal opportunity and equal access to learning at this time’.

She says Wales is fortunate in that it has a ‘strong base on which to build’, courtesy of the Hwb digital learning platform.

Says that as a result of heavy government investment and national purchasing, Microsoft Office and Google education tools ‘are available to all families’.

Says she recognises that ‘access to hardware and connectivity is crucial at this time’ and officials are working with local authorities to ensure that all children are able to benefit from digital learning.

She notes that schools are already lending Chromebooks, laptops and iPads to pupils – and she is hoping to make an announcement tomorrow, if not later in the week, on additional support for hardware and connectivity.

She adds that there is advice to parents and carers on homeschooling available via Hwb.

  • Summer exam series

KW says she understands how devastating it has been for pupils and teachers to cancel this summer’s GCSE and A-level exam series, but says it was the only decision that could have been taken given the circumstances.

Says exams regulator Qualifications Wales has resolved that teachers will be asked  instead to submit a grade they believe each pupil would have obtained had they taken their exams as anticipated.

They will do so on the basis of the data available to them and their own professional judgement. They will then rank the pupils in order, after which a moderation process will ensure consistency from centre to centre and across the nation.

She urges people seeking more information to visit the Qualifications Wales website.

KW add that exam results days will run as normal across Wales, England and Northern Ireland.


So much happened since the last meeting of the Children, Young People and Education Committee in mid-March, that one hour was never going to do it justice.

As it was, today’s discussion focussed, somewhat expectedly, on the here and now – and the immediate challenges facing Wales’ education system.

The health and wellbeing of staff and pupils is rightly top of the agenda, although attention is beginning to turn – albeit slowly – to the future, and what happens when the immediacy of the coronavirus crisis subsides.

Rather like the wider British public needs a route out of lockdown, our education system and all its stakeholders need a vision of what we can expect to see moving forward.

Granted, this is a fast-moving situation and there is no telling what challenges we may yet face, but the Education Minister’s five principles at least plot a course for the reopening of our schools.

We need both hope and optimism, as well as a heady dose of reality.

With that in mind, there are a couple of observations I’d make based on this afternoon’s session…

Firstly, it is becoming increasingly clear that when schools do reopen on a more substantial basis, they will not resemble the schools of old.

This is, of course, because coronavirus will still be very much a part of our lives for the short-term at least.

And while that is the case, there will be a risk. A risk of contagion; a risk of serious illness.

For all the Education Minister’s warm words and reassurance, she cannot guarantee all schools will be safe to all pupils and all staff. This simply isn’t in her gift.

All she can realistically do is mitigate the risks as far as is humanly possible, and act on the best advice of the scientific experts she has at her call.

It is also worth clarifying exactly what teachers and school staff are expected to be doing with regards to the Welsh Government’s weighty reform agenda.

What is the government’s expectation with regards to the new Curriculum for Wales and everything that comes with it?

There was absolutely no mention of this today, although I’ve spoken to a number of school leaders from right across Wales who aren’t in any position to start preparing for 2022 whether they want to or not.

There was already a disparity in what schools knew of the new curriculum, by virtue of our celebrated ‘pioneer’ model, and carrying on as if nothing’s happened will likely exacerbate that problem, leaving some schools playing catch up through no fault of their own.

We need to give school leaders the flexibility to decide when it is right and proper to begin thinking about the new curriculum again.

As I’ve written before, now is the time to step back, catch our breath and reassess what really matters. We must get our priorities right.

My final thought relates to system-wide concerns around the widening of the attainment gap.

That Microsoft Office and Google education tools ‘are available to all families’ will be of scant consolation to those who have no access to the technology required to get online in the first place.

One headteacher told me of the challenges they are facing trying to get pupils who share a mobile phone with the rest of their household remotely engaged in learning. How can those families possibly begin thinking about the plethora of resources published on Hwb?

Making up for lost time is almost certain to be the biggest challenge facing Wales’ education system.

A thorough evaluation of pupils’ progress (or otherwise) during lockdown will be needed, and learning programmes tailored to individual need. The health and wellbeing of all concerned will need careful and sensitive assessment.

We look forward to the minister’s announcement on support for vulnerable learners with interest… it could make all the difference.

Pause the new curriculum: why Wales must take a step back and reassess what really matters

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Nearly a month has passed since the vast majority of schools in Wales were forced to close.

Some have remained open, albeit in streamlined form, and others have been pooled together into ‘hubs’ to reduce human contact and keep everybody as safe as possible.

Our education system has been realigned and no school is working to capacity.

Our children are largely housebound and established patterns of learning tossed into the air.

The coronavirus pandemic has shifted the goalposts beyond all recognition.

It is almost incomprehensible that the very fabric of our society has been disturbed in quite so big a way, quite so quickly.

In practical terms, decades-old structures – timetabling, the classroom environment, examinations – have been broken, perhaps irreparably.

Emotionally, feelings of sorrow, fear and frustration come in waves. The ripple effect is vast and there is no escaping it.

Underlying though, is a sense of immense pride in our country’s response to the outbreak.

We owe so much to so many – our health workers, our bus drivers, our shopkeepers and, of course, our teachers.

Inspirational interventions

What our education workforce has done to reapportion roles and responsibilities, and reshape the very essence of our schools in this time of great need, is nothing short of remarkable.

On a more personal level, hand-delivered Easter eggs, video calls and written messages of hope and encouragement are just some of the inspirational interventions teachers across Wales have been making for the children in their care.

When the dust settles on our shared ordeal, the contribution of school staff – as well as that of other key workers – must be recognised.

Arguments for endless red tape, layers of accountability and shrinking school budgets seem all the more shameful now.

If we are truly all in this together, then all of these things need addressing as a matter of urgency.

My mind is drawn to a report commissioned by the Welsh Government and published in September 2018 that called for an urgent review of how schools in Wales operate.

A team led by Professor Mick Waters recommended that a major commission be established to ‘re-imagine schooling’ and ‘think afresh about how schooling works for pupils, for their families and for teachers’.

A five-strong panel was duly convened last July, but I don’t recall seeing anything tangible shared publicly since.

It is ironic that it has taken a global pandemic to bring Waters’ sentiments about re-imagining schooling to the fore.

Truth is, of course, that we need now to re-imagine society as a whole. We must reflect on what is important, our foremost priorities and whose contributions we really value.

Trust and respect must be the new normal.

Timeline for delivery out of date

From an educational perspective, if there is any good to come out of this crisis, it’s that teachers get to spend more time with their own children.

Precious family time that they would not ordinarily have had.

Similarly, teacher colleagues across Wales have taken the opportunity – and time away from the hustle and bustle of the classroom – to read up on and familiarise themselves with the demands of our new national curriculum.

For some, this was simply not possible in the old world. It’s hard enough preparing for an existing curriculum, without worrying about designing another.

Nevertheless, while there is scope for many to really explore and dig beneath the surface of Curriculum for Wales (CfW), it must be acknowledged that we are living in very different times.

All of a sudden, the march towards our new curriculum and adherence to its very rigid timeline for delivery, looks desperately out of date.

Roll-out appeared ambitious long before recent events, and it is inconceivable that the response to coronavirus will not have impacted on our collective preparations for CfW.

A ‘shared expectations’ document, drafted at the turn of the year by a conglomerate of Welsh Government, Estyn, regional consortia and Qualifications Wales, outlined a list of things schools should be doing between January and June.

It is totally unrealistic to have expected schools to tick off even half of these in the current climate.

The terms of engagement have changed considerably and this is not business as usual.

That is why, in my view, CfW should be paused.

Stop to catch our breath

Now I am not suggesting it be paused indefinitely, or reversed altogether.

There’s been far too much water under the bridge – and energy, money and goodwill expended – to go back on it now.

I’m merely suggesting that we stop to catch our breath, take a step back and reassess what really matters.

Long enough to discuss properly the implications of the pandemic and its effect on the education system to which we will return.

It goes without saying that there are more pressing things on the agenda…

Like caring for the children of key workers; like social distancing; like life and death.

Statements of What Matters, Principles of Progression and Descriptions of Learning can wait.

Besides, what becomes of high-stakes external exams and our accountability framework more generally also warrants much closer consideration.

There has never been a better time than in this, the most unprecedented of summer terms, to reconsider the place of GCSEs – and Challenge Advisers have surely had their day.

Now is the time for our education system to rise up and stand tall.

We cannot let the opportunity to fundamentally change the way in which we work pass us by.

There has been too much suffering and loss to slip back quietly into old habits.

Let’s move forward to a brighter future, that better meets the needs of all our learners, together…

Kirsty Williams – response to coronavirus

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Education Minister Kirsty Williams and members of her senior team gave evidence to the Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee earlier today (19/03/20) on her department’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The meeting lasted an hour and the panel responded to a number of questions from Assembly Members.

Some of what was said has been reported, but the vast majority (as far as I’m aware) has not. There’s a lot in there worth knowing, so I thought I’d make myself useful and jot down some notes…

The session in full is available to view via the following link – https://bit.ly/394eOoE – but with precious little time available to educators at the moment, I’ve outlined some of the key points below (using subheads for ease of ref):


  • ‘New purpose’

Kirsty Williams (KW) confirms that schools will have a ‘new purpose’ to help support those most in need, including those involved in the immediate response to the outbreak.

She says the supporting and safeguarding of the vulnerable and ensuring a continuity of learning for pupils who benefit from free school meals (FSM) and children with additional learning needs (ALN) is a key area of interest.

Says work is ‘already underway’ with local authorities and individual schools on what the new provision will look like for launch on Monday.

Monday will prioritise the ‘emergency response’ – i.e. the children of workers supporting key frontline services. Arrangements for other groups of learners will follow.

Steve Davies (SD), Director of Education, says: “In short, the new purpose is to meet the needs of particular groups of children and young people.”

He says ‘there is still work to be done’ in identifying the exact categories of key workers.

Says he spoke to all 22 local authority directors of education yesterday, and they are ‘already ahead of the curve’ in working with schools to identify children of health workers.

Says the scope of these new arrangements will grow to include a wider range of learners, including those who are vulnerable in terms of being in education otherwise than at school (EOTAS) and those suffering from poor mental health.

Says children going to school will not receive ‘a formal curriculum’, but benefit from ‘a range of activities’.

Says some will be focussed on education activities, some will be cultural, some will be sporting – and a plan will be developed on the basis of the age range of children, which in some cases may stretch from ‘extremely young to those up to the age of 16’.

“There will be a planned set of activities to cater for these children,” he says.

Says the Welsh Government will be in touch with schools today and tomorrow to identify the type (of workers) and numbers of people that will need more immediate support and access to schooling from Monday.

Says some schools have already informed the government and their local authority of their plans to start their new activities next week… ‘Which is quite amazing actually, given where we are.’

Says government is writing to update schools today.

If fit and well, headteachers and school staff will be expected to go into school on Monday (in line with public health guidance) and, for the two weeks to the planned Easter break, school staff should plan for delivery post-Easter and reflect on the work already being undertaken by schools to plan new activities.

SD concedes that ‘Monday will be a challenge for some’, given the short notice and little time for preparation, but reiterates that not all schools will be delivering new arrangements to pupils straight away.

Says it is the Welsh Government’s intention to get as much as possible in place for all identified groups of learners over the next two weeks – with a means to having more ‘resilient’ programmes of learning available post-Easter.

KW says she recognises that for some children, being at school is part of their safeguarding arrangements, and that suitable measures will be put in place.

KW concludes: “Will it (‘new purpose’ arrangements) be perfect on Monday? No – but we will continue to build that resilience.”

  • Special schools

KW confirms that the same arrangements will be made for special schools, and every effort would be made to keep children in their usual settings.

  • Nursery provision

KW says nursery settings are expected to stay open at the moment as they are vital to many families.

  • Teacher discretion

KW says the Welsh Government will ‘absolutely respect the professional judgment of individual headteachers to be able to have those conversations with their directors’, regarding the selection of pupils to go to school under the new arrangements.

“They are the individuals who know their children best and know which children will need this extra support – and we will put no constraints on those teachers trying to do that work,” she adds.

  • Easter holidays

KW confirms ‘new purpose’ school provision will be ongoing and that creating a ‘seamless’ system is the government’s policy goal.

  • Number of schools

KW says there is potential for fewer schools to be required to stay open as the crisis continues. Says one local authority has identified certain locations that it thinks can best house new provision. KW expects other local authorities to begin taking similar decisions over time.

  • Other workers

KW says she has met this week with the Council for Wales of Voluntary Youth Services (CWVYS) to discuss the possible deployment of youth workers to support schools.

Says there is also potential for sports development officers, cultural officers and the like to get involved – and that the Welsh Government will be talking to a range of other workers that local authorities employ (over and above teaching staff) ‘whose normal activities can’t continue at the moment’ who could offer their services.

  • Communication

On the issue of communicating latest developments to parents, pupils and other interested stakeholders, KW says the Welsh Government is developing an education FAQ page on its website to respond to queries as they come in.

  • Parents in health sector

KW says: “In these worst of times, we’re asking parents to leave their children so that they can go and do essential work – and some of that essential work is putting themselves at risk potentially… we want to give those parents confidence that when they leave their children with us, their children will receive something really worthwhile – and they can direct all of their attention to doing their job.”

  • Distance learning

KW confirms that all maintained schools have access to a range of tools that can support distance learning through the ‘world-class’ Hwb digital learning platform, which includes virtual classrooms and video conferencing facilities.

Says a guide on what tools are available and how schools can use them has been developed and is being promoted widely.

  • Prolonged period of closure’

KW says: “During a prolonged period of [school] closure which, if we’re honest, we have to acknowledge is what we’re looking at…”

  • Mental health and wellbeing

KW acknowledges that the mental health and wellbeing of learners will be tested during these unprecedented times. Says she would expect school staff to be doing ‘check-ins’ with pupils, potentially on the phone or on FaceTime, as a way of keeping in touch as we move forward.

Says the Welsh Government will signpost young people to a range of online facilities that are currently available – e.g. the Meic helpline and counselling services available through the NHS.

She says: “We have to remember that this is a really worrying time for children and young people… they are incredibly resilient but we also have to recognise it can be a really worrying time for them.”

  • Summer exam series

KW confirms cancellation of summer GCSE and A-level exam series. Adamant learners will be awarded a fair grade, drawing from a range of information that is available. Says she will announce further detail shortly, but felt it necessary in the first instance to give early certainty to students and staff regarding the cancellation.

Says students in Year 11 and Year 13 will be given a grade ‘because those grades are gateway qualifications and points of movement in the education system – so it’s really important for those students that they are not disadvantaged in any way by not being able to receive a grade which helps them make a decision as a qualifying step into what they will do next’.

Says the structure of qualifications in Wales is ‘an advantage’ in that there are a range of externally-moderated aspects (AS-levels/early entry etc) built in that could be used to support judgement ‘alongside, potentially, teacher evaluation’.

Says no decision has been taken regarding students sitting their AS-levels this year, though they will be treated fairly in line with their peers.

KW expects BTEC qualifications to be awarded, as they are modular in nature.

Says it is the intention to ‘mirror as closely as possible the usual results days’ for GCSE and A-level (in August).

  • Thank you

KW puts on record her thanks to everyone working in education settings for their ongoing work and commitment in very challenging circumstances.


It wouldn’t be right or proper in these most trying of circumstances to offer any attempt at deep thought or critical analysis, based on what was discussed today or how the Welsh Government has responded to the pandemic.

But what I will say is that Kirsty Williams and her team are making a damn good fist of tackling every challenge being thrown their way.

Our minister’s leadership has been admirable – decisive, assured and typically impassioned. She has stepped up when our system needed her most, and I for one thank her for the work she is doing on our behalf.

Such is the developing nature of the coronavirus crisis, every day poses its own new tests of our education system.

But with every hurdle we overcome, we will grow stronger. Our stubborn resistance and steadfast resolve will spread quicker than any disease.

Now is not the time for partisan point scoring.

Now is the time to get behind our Education Minister, and do all that we can to support our inspirational education workforce in keeping our country moving.

Standing on the precipice of a curriculum frontier

curriculum frontier

Risk, gamble, chance – words you would commonly associate with the casino, not education.

But they are words I’m hearing increasingly often on my travels around Wales.

Teachers, policymakers, the middle tier – the root cause of people’s concern is of course our new national curriculum, and the notion of subsidiarity on which it is founded.

On the one hand, a very deliberate rowing back from prescription affords teachers in Wales new levels of professional autonomy – and decentralises power over what is taught from government to the site of practice.

This is a strength of the model, in that it builds agency and respects the craft of teaching as something dependent on experience, expertise and training.

Civil servants don’t know what teachers know, and should not decide therefore what it is they should do and how they should do it.

But on the other hand, the liberation of teachers from curriculum rules and regulation is also an inherent weakness; by definition, it encourages a break from uniformity and opens the door to a disparate system characterised by difference.

Greater inequity

There is a strong argument to suggest that the careful manipulation of our new curriculum framework, published last month, will result in more bespoke learning pathways and offer children richer learning experiences based on school context and individual need.

A word of caution, though, that this re-imagining of school-level curricula is almost entirely dependent on a highly skilled, energised and industrious workforce that has the time, space and support necessary to enact such significant change.

Equally persuasive is the perception that releasing the shackles will lead to greater inequity between schools and wide variation in pupils’ understanding of the world around them.

What children do learn will be based largely on an individual teacher’s ideology, lens or general aptitude.

That said, there is evidence of a certain amount of ‘tightening’ in the latest (and last) iteration of our new curriculum blueprint, with clearer guidance and more detailed definitions of key concepts.

There remains however plenty of room for interpretation and with it a nagging fear that children will emerge from their compulsory education with a random medley of knowledge and understanding.

International perspective

There is little doubt that Wales’ approach to curriculum reform has divided opinion within our system – and further afield.

I have been fortunate in recent months to have had the opportunity to share experiences and compare notes with educators from the Netherlands, Belgium and Australia.

While colleagues from each of the three jurisdictions expressed admiration for aspects of our reform agenda, not one wished they’d followed the Welsh lead.

All three nations have gone down a more ‘prescriptive’ route to curriculum development, with greater specificity and stronger emphasis on achievement outcomes.

And while each concedes their country’s commitment to criteria is fuelled by PISA and concerns over school standards, all three performed better than Wales in the last international comparison published in December.

Admittedly, there are many contextual factors impacting on a nation’s chosen direction of travel, and we would not seek to replicate everything that the Netherlands, Belgium and Australia are currently doing.

We must not though be blinkered in our interpretation of what others have to say, and instead listen to and learn from educators across the globe to embellish what we consider to be the best course of action for Wales.

A decade of contradiction

That we have committed to a long-term plan is to be commended, and after many changes in direction since devolution (not to mention the U-turns), stability and a coherence to policy development is very much welcome.

But as I look back on the last decade of education in Wales, our approach has been something of a contradiction.

For years we bemoaned the variability within our system.

We yearned for consistency across our schools.

At the same time, both Estyn and the OECD highlighted serious weakness in teaching and leadership.

Yet it is those same teachers and leaders that will be required to design, develop and implement their own school-level curricula.

Indeed, even our very best teachers will need to acquire new skills and we should not underestimate the professional learning journey that every practitioner in Wales will have to undertake.

Throw in perennial concerns around workload and funding, and schools face a professional challenge unlike any other presented before in Wales.

Collaborative ‘cluster’ model

Steps are being taken to negate potential pitfalls and the wheels of professional learning are being primed ready for delivery.

Notwithstanding the enormous efforts of our ‘Pioneer’ crusade, the hard work is only just beginning as attention turns to implementation.

I’ll wager that a collaborative ‘cluster’ model would best help develop teachers’ confidence in the art of curriculum-making and build consensus across schools on a local level.

Structured interactions with the middle tier – involving universities, regional consortia, Estyn and so forth – would provide access to additional resources and help facilitate a shared understanding of what a truly ‘Welsh’ curriculum actually looks like.

The odds could be shifted further in our favour with the agreement by stakeholders of a ‘common core’ (particularly relevant to the Humanities and Languages, Literacy and Communication Areas of Learning and Experience) to which every school must adhere.

Teacher agency and learner entitlement are not mutually exclusive – so why not have the best of both worlds?

Leap of faith

There is still much to play for, and a number of key decisions that will define our education system for generations yet to be made.

We stand on the precipice of a curriculum frontier, and there is not one person who can be certain as to how our innovative and experimental approach will work out.

The stakes could not be higher yet at the same time Wales is stepping into the unknown, with no other country having succeeded in making reform of this kind work.

It was Thomas Jefferson who once said ‘that with great risk comes great reward’.

Fingers crossed his words rings true for Welsh education.

 

PISA 2018 and what it means for Wales

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Make no mistake, last month’s ‘PISA’ results were good news for Wales.

After a decade of decline across all key performance indicators, incremental improvement in reading, maths and science was a welcome shot in the arm for an education system that has been through the mill.

Of course, you always wish for better and there remains plenty of room for further development – but given our torrid record in the world’s biggest test of school-age learners, Wales’ scores were a pleasant surprise all things considered.

Conducted every three years by the influential 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, PISA provides a measure by which countries across the world can be judged.

PISA pain

Invariably, this has resulted in a fair amount of PISA pain for Wales.

A steady stream of negative publicity, born out of our PISA struggles, has hit the sector hard and there is little doubt that teacher morale has suffered.

Hopes were high on three separate occasions, following the publication of Wales’ first set of disappointing PISA scores in 2007, that positive change was just around the corner.

But it wasn’t so much jam tomorrow as jam next year as the Welsh Government huffed and puffed to no avail.

A raft of new interventions had no meaningful short-term effect on outcomes, and scores in reading, science and maths – PISA’s three key disciplines – were lower last time out (in 2016) than they were on first entry a decade earlier.

Truth is, of course, Wales is still some way from where it wants to be – but results released in December (a year after tests were sat) represent a welcome step in the right direction.

Collectively, Welsh teenagers scored:

  • 483 points in reading – an improvement of 6 points on 2015
  • 487 points in maths – an improvement of 9 points on 2015
  • 488 points in science – an improvement of 3 points on 2015

The scores mean that for the first time ever, Wales is not ‘statistically different’ to the OECD average in any of the three PISA domains.

Poor relation

Also worthy of note is Wales’ increased proportion of high-achieving learners (the so-called ‘top-end’), with more pupils performing at Levels 5 and 6 across reading, maths and science.

The attainment gap between pupils eligible for free school meals (a proxy for deprivation) and those who are not has reduced, as has the gap between Wales and other parts of the UK in two of the three subject areas.

So, there is lots to feel positive about – not that you’d have known when reading any of the Fleet Street newspapers in the days following PISA’s publication.

A quick scan of the UK (and some Welsh) media showed renewed focus on our propping up of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland in the domestic league table.

The fact of the matter is, for all the encouragement we can rightly draw from PISA 2018, Wales remains the UK’s poor relation.

It is a tough pill to swallow, but a reminder that the chasm we are attempting to bridge is vast.

Scotland’s decline

In policy terms, PISA 2018 does two other things worth highlighting.

First and foremost, our improvement buys us time and space; the fact Wales curved upwards has dampened the threat of more reform and further upheaval.

This is a good thing, and ensures the system-wide reform agenda current underway is given a stay of execution – for the near future, at least.

The second policy consequence is more problematic.

PISA 2018 brings into sharp focus once again the performance of our Celtic cousins north of the border.

Scotland’s steady decline against international comparators has continued, adding fuel to the suggestion that the country’s fledgling new curriculum has exacerbated its downward trend.

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.

But its roll-out has been far from straightforward, and a decade after implementation there has been little to dissuade critics of its link with PISA outcomes.

Curriculum review

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.

Coincidentally, news of a thorough review of Curriculum for Excellence, authorised by the Scottish Government under pressure from Parliament, is to be welcomed and the more we can learn from the Scottish experience, the better.

Scotland’s improvement in reading offers some hope that the worm is beginning to turn, but with scores across all three domains lower now than in 2000, there is rightly cause for concern.

Nevertheless, 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 opportunity to learn from colleagues grappling with the same challenges.

Comparisons between Wales and Scotland are unavoidable, and we must be honest enough to acknowledge and respond to red flags as they arise.

Ministerial milestone

Finally, a word for our industrious commander-in-chief, Kirsty Williams, who is now the second-longest serving Welsh education minister, after Jane Davidson.

Unbeknownst to many, Ms Williams marked another milestone in December, becoming the only education minister in Wales to live through two rounds of PISA (no minister has stuck around long enough to suffer the same ignominy twice).

That she remains minister after two PISAs and a change in first minister is no doubt a positive reflection on her tenure to date, and Wales’ rise up the global rankings assures she will be in post for a good while yet.

The irony of course is that PISA 2018 is reflective only of a bygone system dating back several ministers and, most probably, telling interventions like the Literacy and Numeracy Framework (LNF) introduced under Leighton Andrews.

True, Ms Williams’ focus on more able and talented (MAT) pupils and her appointment of a PISA ‘tsar’ to rally round participating schools appears to have paid dividends.

But the new-look, Donaldson-inspired system we are in the process of creating will not play out in PISA results for many years to come.

In the meantime, educators in Wales are charged with maintaining progress in standards while implementing what Ms Williams calls the biggest set of reforms seen anywhere in the UK for more than half a century.

That’s no easy task, whichever way you dress it up.

 

Points mean prizes in PISA rat race

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The long wait for ‘PISA’ results is almost over.

Wales’ position in the international rat race will be confirmed on Tuesday (December 3).

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 the de facto benchmarking tool for education systems across the globe, PISA is hugely significant and has fuelled policy development for the best part of 20 years.

So too has it spawned a form of policy ‘borrowing’, and a tendency of poor performing nations to mimic the foundations laid by those in PISA’s table toppers.

In Wales, the story of PISA is decidedly ugly.

Scores in reading, science and maths – PISA’s three key disciplines – are lower now than they were on first entry in 2006.

Welsh pupils are below the OECD average in all subject areas, and Wales props up England, Scotland and Northern Ireland in the UK rankings.

The political and public response to Wales’ PISA problems has been fierce and given way to a severe bout of ‘reform fatigue’.

Indeed, the Welsh Government’s tendency to lurch from one policy to the next has been both overwhelming and destabilising; in many cases, initiatives have barely had time to bed in before they have been shut down or in fact reversed.

Battered, bruised and deeply cynical of PISA’s real value, it is little wonder that educators across the country have grown tired of its impact on day-to-day practice.

That a one-off test, three years apart, can drive a nation’s school improvement and reform agenda is, without question, a hard pill to swallow.

And of course, the flaws in PISA’s methodology and data collection are well documented.

Taking PISA in the round

There are cultural and contextual differences in the way PISA is perceived, administered and indeed translated, and a statistical uncertainty in the way results are collated.

Take high-flying Vietnam – with less than 50% of its 15-year-old population participating in PISA (the figure is well above 90% in Wales), there is every chance pupil scores are not a true reflection of its education system’s performance more generally.

But that is not to say PISA doesn’t matter and the fact so many of the world’s leading economies have chosen to engage of their own volition makes it a force to be reckoned with.

Striking is how little PISA has been referred to and spoken about in Wales in the months leading up to next week’s publication.

There has been next to no mention of our looming day of reckoning in any of the recent national headteacher conferences, and the education minister has herself steered noticeably clear of priming PISA wheels.

This to me suggests one of two things: that Wales’ PISA scores are no better (or worse) than the last iteration, or that the Welsh Government has matured to a level by which PISA can at last be taken in the round.

Win, lose or draw, it would be a welcome change in approach for an administration – among many – that has been guilty of using PISA as justification for whole-system change.

Truth is, there are a wide range of performance measures we can use to test the temperature of Welsh education and our shortcomings (eg. in literacy, numeracy and narrowing the gap) are well known.

To some extent, PISA has only served to re-enforce that which we knew already. We do not need the OECD to tell us where we are going wrong.

Whatever the result, a measured response to PISA is required and we must resist any temptation to rip up and start again; Welsh education is only part-way through its recently mapped journey of reform.

Focus on points

It is hard to predict exactly where in the international ladder Wales will finish in PISA 2018.

Working in our favour is the remedial work undertaken by the Welsh Government in the run up to testing last year, including the appointment of a PISA tsar to rally round participating schools.

Getting school leaders to take PISA seriously has, without question, hampered progress in the past.

Working against us is the distraction of curriculum development, and the heavy demands on our teaching profession as we work through what Kirsty Williams describes as ‘the biggest set of education reforms anywhere in the UK for over half a century’.

Put simply, there is currently so much noise in the system that schools may well have shifted their attention to other things.

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 OECD average
  • 478 points in maths – 12 points below the OECD average
  • 485 points in science – 8 points below the OECD average

For me, Wales’ points tally is more important than its place in PISA’s league table.

The addition of new countries into the mix (there were 79 participating in 2018, compared to just 57 in 2006) makes comparing rankings across cycles extremely difficult – and calls into question the validity of progress over time.

That said, there is no reason why the performance of Welsh pupils alone can’t be charted – and I for one will be looking to see whether Wales can better its scores in any or all of the three headline disciplines.

This to me is the real acid test.

Also worthy of scrutiny will be the performance of Wales’ more able and talented learners – an area of weakness identified by the OECD in the last PISA tranche.

Indeed, it will be interesting to see if a renewed emphasis on the ‘top end’ – and more support for pupils requiring greater breadth and depth of learning activities – has paid dividends.

Lots at stake

Looking further afield, there will likely be significant interest in Scotland’s PISA performance, given Wales has drawn so heavily on the experiences of its Celtic cousins.

Scotland’s alarming decline across all three PISA domains (which is considerably more marked than ours) has been linked to the introduction of Curriculum for Excellence, which does raise some difficult questions of the Welsh direction of travel.

And so we await publication of Tuesday’s PISA results with nervous apprehension.

There is a huge amount at stake and, at its worst, PISA has the potential (based on prior experience) to derail much of the reform agenda that has been set in train in Wales.

Equally, if Wales performs well it will no doubt serve as a timely confidence boost for all engaged in Welsh education during a period of great change and professional challenge.

One thing is for sure, after a decade of near-constant churn and criticism, Wales’ education system could do with a shot in the arm.

 

Curriculum for Wales 2022 – leaving nothing to chance

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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 Friday 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.

It makes for essential reading for those directly involved in the design, development and implementation of the new curriculum – albeit there is so much more to be discussed and determined.

I was drawn initially to a short statement in the report’s executive summary, which makes clear its analysis:

‘…is intended to support and inform ongoing efforts to refine and improve the curriculum before it is rolled out in classrooms across Wales.’

It is with that in mind that I write this blog, which builds upon my own personal submission to the curriculum consultation earlier this summer.

Cause for optimism

For me, there is much cause for optimism in the Welsh Government’s reform agenda – and our shared ‘National Mission’ for change.

There is a growing respect from those at the top of the tree for our industrious teaching workforce; a new culture of collaboration; and a genuine desire to put right what we have got wrong in the past.

Education Minister Kirsty Williams is passionate, sincere and a true champion for a profession that gives so much to so many.

But for all the goodwill and positive energy evident in our education system, there remain significant challenges to overcome.

The issue of school funding is particularly bracing, and the impact of poverty on attainment has blighted our society for far too long.

Capital developments are ongoing, but often in arrears, and there is genuine concern that capacity at all levels of education delivery is at breaking point.

As for the curriculum itself, there are a number of things documented in the independent analysis worthy of consideration.

I have already listed four things that I would personally seek to address, and I’m not yet confident that we’ve done so sufficiently.

We should not, however, fear challenge and interrogation; it is inevitable that with radical change comes uncertainty, and you wouldn’t be human without some level of apprehension about what lies ahead.

Seismic shift

I want to focus here on the notion of subsidiarity, and the very deliberate rowing back from prescription that affords teachers in Wales new levels of professional autonomy.

On the one hand, liberating teachers from the straitjacket of text books 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.

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

Medley of knowledge and understanding

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.

I must admit, therefore, to being somewhat surprised by the report’s conclusion that:

‘…the substantive concerns expressed by the respondents surrounding the perceived dilution of subject disciplines, the lack of prescription within the curriculum, and the inclusion or exclusion of specific knowledge or skills were not widely held.’

Perhaps I am mixing in the wrong circles (which is curious, given I speak to or work with teachers on a near daily basis), but this does not marry with what I have been told so often on my journeys around Wales.

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.

Inadvertently airbrushed

Development of the education workforce is of course crucial to the reform agenda, but it cannot be assumed that every teacher in Wales is willing and able to make the monumental professional learning journey we are demanding of them.

Neither can we expect school leaders to guarantee every learner in every class is developing appropriately, against the loose framework presented in our new curriculum outline.

Take the Humanities Area of Learning and Experience (AoLE).

By encompassing geography, history, religious education, business studies and social studies, it doubtless has one of the broadest of all AoLE remits.

Nevertheless, supporting guidance makes clear that:

‘As a matter of principle, practitioners should be free to decide on the organisation of this Area of Learning and Experience, and the choice of content to be covered. This autonomy allows for content to be adapted to suit the differing needs of learners.’

What Matters statements, Achievement Outcomes and Progression Steps offer strong foundations on which to build, and the need for teachers to develop their own curricula is well understood.

But what I find difficult to reconcile is that pupils in different schools could leave with a very different understanding of the defining events in 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.

So what then is the solution?

Essential core canon

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.

The ‘What Matters’, based as they are on the essence of learning, are very much open to interpretation and not clear enough as to the range of ‘things’ one can typically be expected to draw upon when teaching across the age range.

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.

National debate

A national debate on what pupils need to know to live, learn and work in Wales and the world (over and above the What Matters) would, in my view, be a natural next step for policymakers.

And in the true spirit of co-construction championed by the Welsh Government, teachers would be fundamental 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.

Furthermore, a discussion on the level of detail that sits beneath our What Matters statements would surely feed into and pre-empt forthcoming debate around the future of qualifications.

I want this curriculum to work, I really do; not least because so many have given so much of their time, energy and goodwill to making Successful Futures a reality.

It is very difficult to argue against Donaldson’s Four Purposes and the framing of education as a continuum, without rigid checkpoints hampering pupil progress.

So too can I see real potential in cross-curricular working, and encouraging specialist teachers to work collaboratively with others across traditional subject disciplines.

But we cannot be ignorant to the challenges that distinctiveness presents.

Curriculum snobbery

Throughout the curriculum development process, I have heard of a great number of arguments dismissed as being a ‘misinterpretation’ or ‘misunderstanding’ of what the curriculum is ‘all about’.

Take the following statement, again from the feedback report:

‘Across responses, people have clearly given different weight and attention to different aspects of the curriculum, both conceptually and from a practical perspective. In some cases there are interpretations that may not accurately reflect the spirit or intention of the new curriculum. It is possible, for example, that some who wish to see greater prominence being given to certain bodies of knowledge or subject disciplines may not have understood the curriculum in terms of seeking to provide teachers with greater control and flexibility in how they teach them.’

Comments such as these are becoming a little tiresome and, if I’m honest, slightly patronising.

They suggest a hierarchy of curriculum knowledge and, presumably, give greater cachet to those directly involved in its evolution.

We must be wary of the propensity for curriculum snobbery, and allow all with a stake in Welsh education the opportunity to comment constructively on it.

Allowing only those ‘in the know’ to speak authoritatively on our reform agenda is a dangerous game, and risks alienating the vast majority of the education workforce (given far more have been watching and waiting, than actually participating).

Indeed, I have no doubt that there will be some who sigh at the comments made within this blog – and who are fed up with my entertaining of the same old arguments.

But the fact that we are still having these discussions suggests to me that answers to some of the big issues of the day have not yet been agreed or, at very least, properly articulated.

As we march on towards final publication in January, there is still time to allay some of the education system’s most pressing fears, and ensure Curriculum for Wales 2022 launches on the soundest of footings.

Challenge and celebration as education’s world leaders land in Wales

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‘The world is watching’.

‘The eyes of the international community are upon us’.

‘Our reforms are putting Welsh education on the world map’.

If you’ve been to an education conference in Wales in the past three years, you’re likely to have heard a variation of one (or all) of the above.

The Education Minister, senior civil servants, advisers and general partisans of the Welsh reform agenda are in little doubt that what we are doing is of genuine interest to those in other jurisdictions.

In fact, educators in Wales would be forgiven for feeling a tad uncomfortable about the apparent level of adulation among colleagues overseas.

While there is undoubtedly political capital in developing international interest in and support for one’s policies, that Welsh education is so firmly entrenched on the world stage simply serves to ratchet up the pressure on Wales to improve its standing in comparable benchmarks.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) – now just a few months from publication – and its founding fathers at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) haven’t exactly been gushing of our performance relative to other nations over time.

But let’s not go there now. A new vision for education in Wales has superseded all that went before it and with an innovative new curriculum on the horizon, there is fresh optimism that a very challenging corner has been turned.

It is doubtless with that positive outlook in mind that Kirsty Williams and her team will this week welcome some of the world’s leading educational experts to Wales for a whistle-stop tour of all we have to offer.

‘Stimulating discourse’

The Atlantic Rim Collaboratory (ARC) is a global group of education systems intent on sharing best practice and stimulating discourse by providing ‘high level contact with world thought leaders’.

Its vision, it says, is to advance values of equity, excellence, wellbeing, inclusion, democracy and human rights for all students within high-quality, professionally-run systems.

For Wales and the Welsh Government, however, the visit of ARC to the Welsh capital is about much more than that and provides policymakers and key stakeholders a unique opportunity to share with some of education’s movers and shakers the ‘National Mission’ to raise standards in Welsh schools.

The fourth ‘ARC Summit’ will see representatives from eight systems across the world descend on Cardiff tomorrow for a four-day event programme, featuring contributions from the likes of Andy Hargreaves, Pasi Sahlberg and Steve Munby.

Delegates from Scotland, Nova Scotia, Iceland, Uruguay and Finland are all due to attend.

Make no mistake, this will be a PR offensive like no other.

And why wouldn’t it be, given the unquestionable international cachet carried by each of the summit’s participating members?

If Hargreaves and co like what they see, word will spread that Wales is a nation worthy of interest – not ridicule. That can only be a good thing.

Celebrating excellence

I have written on numerous occasions that Wales has much to be proud of and we must be more open to celebrating the excellence that exists in our schools.

There is certainly some truth in the OECD’s assertion that Wales is not a strong enough cheerleader for what it does well.

I look at high-flying countries like Canada – and its legion of experts that sell a very positive message across the globe – and wonder if we are doing enough to promote our system on the world stage.

ARC offers the perfect platform through which to do just that.

What is less clear, however, is exactly how much challenge and scrutiny the Welsh Government is willing to shoulder, and assuming our esteemed guests have thoughts on how made-in-Wales policy can be bettered, what is up for grabs and what is set in stone.

Indeed, it would be interesting to learn as the summit develops, which of Wales’ education policies are subject to change – and which are not.

After all, the Welsh reform agenda is very much up and running already.

Finally, a word of caution: as good as it is having an international spotlight on Wales, we must not lose sight of the pressing need to ensure our own education community is fully abreast of policy developments.

It is important that key messages are delivered (and heard) at home as well as abroad, and we ignore internal communication at our peril.

School’s out for summer… but curriculum refinement is only just beginning

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And relax!

The summer term is finally over and teachers the length and breadth of the UK have downed tools for a well-earned break.

In Wales, a frantic end to another action-packed academic year culminated in the closing of the Welsh Government’s consultation into its new draft curriculum.

A roadshow of regional engagement events took comment in real-time, while upward of 600 people are said to have submitted their feedback online.

So what happens next?

In the short-term, we all go on holiday… but when we return in September, those responsible for wading through stakeholder observations will have their work cut out.

If the curriculum is to be ready for dissemination in January, as trailed by the Welsh Government, newly-established Quality Improvement (QI) groups face a race against time to decide what works and what doesn’t.

When you factor in the month lost to R&R and the time it will take to design, proof and publish new materials, Wales’ curriculum navigators won’t have long to consider diligently all representation.

‘Listening and refining’

We have entered the phase in our curriculum reform journey coined by Education Minister Kirsty Williams as ‘listening and refining’.

But with listening invariably comes some difficult decisions.

Feedback may, in some cases, elicit broad agreement and a quick and straightforward amendment to the framing of a ‘What Matters’ statement or ‘Progression Step’.

But there will doubtless be other responses that give rise to much more significant changes that challenge the very essence of the curriculum blueprint and its overarching philosophy.

Judgments on what to do will divide opinion, but consensus must be found.

There is no question that QI groups – of Pioneer Schools, AoLE leads and invited experts – have a formidable task in driving our new curriculum forward, with a tight political timeline working very much against them.

But for the consultation to hold water, and for non-Pioneers to input meaningfully into the curriculum, those steering development must not take personally constructive contributions from outside the inner sanctum.

There is a natural tendency in these situations for Pioneers to be overly protective of their meticulously crafted creation; let’s not forget that draft documents have been all but four years in the making, and have involved many days and weeks camped in hotels and conference centres in every corner of the country.

Like a film director fielding questions at the premiere of their new movie, it is perfectly understandable that our curriculum creators will seek to defend and provide justification for what they have unveiled to the world.

And having invested so much time and energy into the writing process, they have certainly earned the right to speak confidently about what they have presented to colleagues across the system.

But equally, one can become ‘too close’ to the end product and blinded to comment and analysis wrongly construed as criticism.

Critical friends

If teacher ownership of the curriculum is indeed paramount, then it is vital stakeholders everywhere can rest assured their voices have been heard.

Nothing must be dismissed out of hand and all representation must be duly considered.

The addition of external observers or, better still, ‘critical friends’ into the refinement mix is an intervention worthy of contemplation and would surely help in releasing pressure on the small group of people charged with undertaking such an important role.

What’s more, it will go some way to calming those concerned about the integrity of the consultation and refinement process more generally.

At very least, transparency regarding the make-up of QI groups, and appropriate documentation of the steps taken to support their decision-making, would be most welcome.

In the meantime, let us all rest up, enjoy what is left of the summer and recharge the batteries ready for the start of the autumn term.

Something tells me we’re going to need it…