Wales is in the process of developing a curriculum that is designed to transform the nature of teaching and learning in primary and secondary schools. The ‘Curriculum for wales’ – sometimes referred to simply as ‘Donaldson’ after the person who developed the proposals – is based on ‘ a brand new way of developing a curriculum that places schools and teachers at the heart of development in a ‘wholly new way of thinking and working’ (https://gov.wales/docs/dcells/publications/170707-new-curriculum-for-wales-story-so-far-en-v2.pdf). The Welsh Government has, therefore, put in place a complex organisation of ‘pioneer’ teachers and schools who are tasked with developing ‘What matters’ in each of the six new ‘Areas of Learning and Experience’ (AoLEs) alongside strategies for Digital Competency and Professional Learning.
Our research, which is funded by the Welsh Government and HEFCW, is designed to follow the hopes and fears of the curriculum pioneers as they begin to develop the curriculum. To this end, we have begun talking to a range of teachers, policy-makers and other key stakeholders who are closely involved in the process.
It is clear from our initial interviews that the new Curriculum for Wales has captured the imagination of many teachers who are very excited about its potential to transform the learning experience. However, they have also raised a number of concerns as they begin to explore what for many is uncharted territory. Although we are only at the start of our research, we think it is important to share some of their fears as well as their hopes so that policy and practitioner communities can address them sooner rather than later.
The pleasures and pains of developing the curriculum
The pioneer teachers we have spoken to have been very positive about the process of curriculum development and express a strong sense of ‘ownership’. Although the discussions and meetings are involving a lot of very hard work and long hours, they are enjoying working with other teachers. They are also stimulated by the cerebral and analytical challenges. They report that there is clearly scaffolding and layers of scrutiny in place, making the teachers reflect on and justify their decisions. Processes are constantly being reviewed and revisited.
However, because the organisational arrangements are necessarily complex and time-consuming, some teachers have expressed concern about the expense of implementation, both in terms of the time it is taking, the removal of the ‘best’ teachers from the classroom, and the cost of meetings and cover for teachers. In addition, there has been some anxiety over who has not been included in the curriculum development process – pupils, parents, HE subject specialists and business stakeholders. It is clear that some pioneer leads and schools are involving pupils and other stakeholders, but the extent of this engagement appears to vary widely rather than having been systematically built into the development process.
The benefits and challenges of curriculum integration
Those we have spoken with so far have overwhelmingly positive convictions about the potential of the new curriculum to deliver welcome change. There is a sense of excitement and empowerment about the opportunities that are provided to shape a curriculum fit for their own specific context. They mention in particular its flexible and holistic approach. Teachers believe that the new curriculum allows them to design teaching schemes that engage pupils more meaningfully. They also see the benefits of breaking down the boundaries between stages and subject areas. For example, primary and secondary school colleagues are working together cohesively. This means that the curriculum is being conceived of, right from the start, as one continuum, rather than as different phases. The new curriculum may allow for greater recognition of the different ways in which learning achievement takes place and provide greater equality of opportunity and inclusivity under new arrangements.
However, this integration and flexibility also brings challenges as the role of subject specialisation becomes less certain. School subjects are not only important to individuals, they also have institutional properties. Weakening, even removing, subject demarcations will therefore not only change what the timetable will look like, it will reconfigure relationships and responsibilities.
A major concern, though, of those committed to the new curriculum is not that subjects will disappear, but that the changes will only be superficial. This concern is based on the as-yet unknown relationship between the AoLEs and external accreditation. Perhaps the biggest fear is that despite the hard work and enthusiasm of pioneer and partner schools, the requirement for externally-validated assessment will continue to dominate learning and teaching priorities in the upper years of secondary education.
Will there be enough resources to make it happen?
In terms of implementation costs, pioneers spoke of the importance of ensuring schools have enough resources for putting in place the necessary infrastructure. This is particularly an issue in relation to the technology required to implement the Digital Competency Framework – which has a central place within the new curriculum.
One aspect that is emerging from the interviews is the need for appropriate professional development. There is frequent reference to the need for ‘mindset change’ among teachers. However, it is unclear how ‘mindsets’ can be changed across the system without significant amounts of investment in professional development.
In conclusion, transformative change is always challenging. Our pioneers are committed to ensuring that the new curriculum embodies its promise of offering Wales’ young people an educational experience that is rewarding and relevant. However, in so doing it is important to listen to their concerns if this promise is to be realised – not only for the pioneer schools but for all schools and their learners.