Sink or swim for national curriculum


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.