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…

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