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.
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.
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.
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.
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.