Managing change – curriculum, assessment and the professional voice

blog jan 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easter’s big reveal has major implications.

Mature and honest dialogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing can be dismissed out of hand.

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

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

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

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

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

New approach to accountability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Estyn’s ‘gap year’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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