Article for The Welsh Agenda: “A Puzzling Picture”

Invited article for the Institute of Welsh Affair‘s The Welsh Agenda (Spring 2017, Issue 58):

Professor Gary Beauchamp and Professor Tom Crick consider the variance of vantage points from which Wales’ new curriculum is being constructed.

When the editor first suggested this piece, he was looking for an overview of the process of the introduction of the new Digital Competence Framework (DCF) and suggested a buzzard was a possible analogy. There followed a light-hearted exchange pointing out that the predatory nature of a bird of prey may not be the best analogy, but it made us think about our own viewpoint and role as independent experts providing the evidence base and identifying international best practice for the DCF. Furthermore, it also caused us to reflect upon the viewpoint adopted by the Welsh Government in developing the DCF and the whole of the new curriculum, adopted after the review — Successful Futures: Independent Review of Curriculum and Assessment Arrangements in Wales — conducted by Professor Graham Donaldson in 2015.

When Huw Lewis, the Minister for Education and Skills at the time, accepted the recommendations of Successful Futures in full, he fulfilled a prediction that he would become `the great reformer’ (Beauchamp and Jephcote, 2016). At a stroke, he changed the way that education would look, and, thus, how it would be taught from the ages of 3-16. Previous Ministers had used devolved powers to develop a distinct Welsh identity for education — such as the Foundation Phase for younger learners — but the proposal to move away from individual subjects and the traditional key stages in favour of six thematic Areas of Learning & Experience (AoLE), with literacy, numeracy and digital competence as cross-cutting responsibilities of equal importance, was a major transformation. Donaldson recommended that four purposes should “guide all future decisions about national and local educational priorities and underpin all teaching and learning in Wales”. (Donaldson, 2015, p.30) Thus, all children and young people will be:

  • Ambitious, capable learners who are ready to learn throughout their lives;
  • Enterprising, creative contributors who are ready to play a full part in life and work;
  • Ethical, informed citizens who are ready to be citizens of Wales and the world;
  • Healthy, confident individuals who are ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society.

The Donaldson review further recommended a `Pioneer’ model of developing the new curriculum to achieve these four purposes. This was a clear departure from how education reform has been done in Wales, aligning to emerging international best practice and research. Instead of civil servants — with input from selected stakeholders — ultimately developing the overall structure and content of the new curriculum, it was delegated to these `pioneers’: teachers selected for their expertise and proven high-quality practice. This practitioner-led curriculum development model, with expert guidance from academic and other key stakeholders, provided opportunity and challenge in equal measure. Unsurprisingly, one of the key challenges has been, and remains, time. This is exemplified by the first test of the pioneer model, the development of the Digital Competence Framework. While we were encouraged that the announcement of the DCF was the first tangible deliverable of the Donaldson review, we were very aware of the challenges presented by the timescales: from Ministerial statement (June 2015), to initial meeting of the Digital Pioneers (October 2015), to it being made available to all schools (September 2016).

In our own dealings with colleagues at the initial meeting of the pioneers to develop the DCF, it became evident that, although empowering, the sheer scale of starting from scratch was daunting for some practitioners. Previous iterations of the curriculum have all been `top-down’, often with politicians and civil servants influencing key decisions. The introduction of a National Curriculum in England and Wales through the 1988 Education Reform Act was a clear example of this. Despite the existence of expert groups advising the government, there was a strong political influence not only on the choice of subjects to be included, but also the actual content of the curriculum. An important debate at the time centred around the importance of facts and `knowledge’ versus skills, for example, in the history curriculum. This also resonated in the development of the DCF — and will also feature in the development of the AoLEs by the other pioneer groups — but this time without overt political interference. With the exception of the Foundation Phase teachers (who currently work with three-year-olds in seven `areas of learning’), most teachers were used to a curriculum divided into traditional subject areas (such as English, science and music). A key challenge for all involved was to move away from this potentially compartmentalised subject thinking towards a more integrated, `cross-curricular’ approach, focusing on skills rather than knowledge. But this began with a blank page.

The first challenge for the digital pioneers was to consider what a five-year-old child entering school that year — who is growing up in a digital world — should be able to do (skills), rather than only what they should know (knowledge) when they left school aged 16 or 18. This was not perpetuating the myth of the `digital native’, but understanding how we can best equip our young people to be confident and capable consumers and creators of technology — enabling `makers’ as well as `users’. These skills then had to be organised in a progression (more challenging and building on existing skills as they grow older), which was related not only to the other digital skills, but also to how they could work across the other, yet to be developed, AoLEs. Given the breadth of digital skills of many five-year-olds today, this presented a significant challenge to see what schools could add over a more than a decade in education.

The Minister had appointed an `expert’ advisory group (including academics and other stakeholders) to provide guidance, quality assurance and the international research and evidence base – of which we were both members. However, time was again a factor, as this group only formally met three times, with their impact potentially limited and often reactive — for instance, commenting on early iterations of the DCF that the pioneers had developed — rather than being more proactive (although Crick, as chair of this group, regularly engaged with the pioneers). In this context, individual leaders emerged from the pioneer group, but the key challenge remained about all of them taking ownership of the process and not expecting the government (via civil servants or otherwise) to provide the answers. Hence, although supported by civil servants, the pioneers may remain largely on their own in driving the development of the new curriculum. While this is the intention of the model adopted by the Welsh Government — and true to the spirit of Donaldson’s recommendation — the key challenge that remains for the pioneer groups can be summed up in evidence provided recently to the National Assembly for Wales’ Children, Young People and Education Committee by Neil Foden (NUT Cymru Executive Member): “the pioneer model seems to be: a whole host of schools being told there’s going to be a jigsaw, and you’re going to be able to design your pieces in the jigsaw — we don’t know what the picture on the box is, and we’ve no idea what jigsaw pieces the other schools are developing…and I have a real worry that you’re not going to have a curriculum in place to offer to schools in 2018, and you’re going to miss the 2019 statutory deadline as well.

This leads us to return to our overview analogy. There is indeed a benign government bird circling high above everyone looking down (attempting to keep an eye on all that is happening below), waiting to swoop down on any potentially problematic issues. On the ground, there are busy pioneer professionals scurrying around working hard to fulfil the remit they have been given, but perhaps still developing new communities of practice: looking for signposts to tell them who their peers are, what they are doing and how it ties in with their own work. Somewhere in between are others looking down, including the civil servants and expert panels — as well as other groups such as universities providing initial teaching education and training — but it is still not clear that they, or the government `above’ them, can yet see how all the pieces of the jigsaw being created on the ground fit together and precisely when this jigsaw needs to be complete. When it is, there is potential for Wales to have an innovative — and internationally-leading — curriculum made in Wales, for Wales.

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