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


‘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 A new vision for education in Wales has superseded all that went before it and with an innovative new curriculum on the horizon, there is fresh optimism that a very challenging corner has been turned.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.

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