There were two aims to the programme of research: the first relating to the need to identify emergent issues in the development of the curriculum as they relate to disadvantage; the second related to the need to build education research capacity in Wales.
In order to meet both of the Programme’s aims, we developed a ‘hub and spoke’ model. The ‘hub’ project provided a more comprehensive overview of the how the new curriculum might relate to socio-economically disadvantaged learners. This project then connected with five satellite projects that each focused on a different dimension of disadvantage. Two focused on schools and pupils that are likely to experience particular challenges – schools in rural areas and learners with additional needs. Two focused on particular areas of learning – the Digital Competency Framework (DCF) and the Expressive Arts and one project has explored the role of Mindfulness interventions to promote health and wellbeing. Although the six projects all explore different dimensions of disadvantage, there are some notable similarities in their findings both in terms of what the new curriculum promises and its potential perils.
Findings on emergent issues in curriculum development
Overall, the majority of teachers in Pioneer Schools are excited about the new curriculum. They are frustrated with the current system, seeing it as a prescriptive curriculum which places burdensome accountability demands on schools. In general, teachers and other stakeholders did not often mention the implications for disadvantaged learners and schools. There is the implicit assumption that the curriculum will be universally beneficial, without any clarification of how this will happen – or of the risks entailed. When probed on this issue, Pioneer Practitioners were able to identify a range of possible benefits that might emerge for the disadvantaged, the disengaged and the disillusioned young person. These can be categorised in terms of: valuing progression; fostering wellbeing; a more experiential curriculum; increasing flexibility and relevance.
While making the curriculum more experiential and progression-based seems self-evidently worthwhile, in practice we know that this will require a significant level of investment if the benefits are to be universally experienced. It is clear from our research that there are disparities in engagement and investment that will need to be addressed if the benefits are to be more universally experienced. There are also clear disparities associated with the ‘Pioneer’ process of curriculum development itself. Our mapping of the profile of Pioneer Schools reveals that they are disproportionately advantaged in terms of the socio-economic profile of their student intake. There are clear disparities in levels of engagement and enthusiasm within Pioneer Schools, which are likely to be magnified between Pioneer and Partner Schools. Similarly, there are concerns about disparities in investment. A frequent issue raised by the Pioneer Schools related to the expense associated with developing and implementing the curriculum. Even with the extra money these schools had received, they were unable to provide the out-of-school learning activities for all their students – and worried about how they would implement the curriculum after the development funding ceased. This was especially a concern in schools in more economically deprived areas which cannot draw on the generosity of affluent parents to supplement budgets. Again, these disparities are likely to be even more pronounced across non-Pioneer schools.
In addition to between-school disparities in engagement and investment, there are issues about the needs of particular groups of learners that need to be addressed. Teachers in Pioneer Schools appear unconvinced that the new Curriculum will be of particular benefit to disadvantaged students in their own schools. However, the teachers who were most positive about the potential benefit of the new curriculum for disadvantaged learners were teachers in Pioneer Schools with the higher levels of socio-economic disadvantaged pupils. While this may be reassuring on one level, if their enthusiasm rests on the possibility of offering their students a more ‘flexible’ and ‘vocationally relevant’ curriculum, there must be real concerns about a shared entitlement to an intellectually challenging curriculum.
In short, there has to be recognition that this reform needs to be underpinned by a significant new investment. It may be possible to mitigate against these negative implications, but our research shows that for this to happen the Welsh Government, the education consortia and the Pioneer Schools need to ensure their planning for the success of the new curriculum gives more attention to the needs of disadvantaged learners and schools.
Progress in research capacity-building
This capacity-building dimension of this research programme was designed on the basis of extensive experience of undertaking and evaluating research capacity building activities in the UK. The model was based on the principal that new researchers were best supported by a combination of expert guidance, collaborative inquiry and a sense of individual ownership. A key aspect of this was the ‘hub and spokes’ structure of the programme. The hub component provided not only guidance but a comprehensive research project that could inform the ‘spoke’ projects being undertaken by the partners. In addition to workshops and meetings, collaboration was encouraged through frequent mentoring and advice. The comments of the participants indicate that the combination of formal input through workshops and collaboration with other researchers, alongside ownership of their own research projects, has been a positive experience. Key findings from the partner feedback highlight the following aspects as important components of their development:
o Formal workshops, tailored to the needs of the individual projects
o The opportunity to collaborate with researchers from other HEIs on related but different projects
o The sense of ownership of directing one’s own project
As with all research, the major obstacle was finding the time. However, our impression is that the collective nature of the endeavour and the regular meetings meant that research remained a priority in partners’ work schedules.
Another indicator of the success of this model of capacity building is that all of the participants intend to take forward their research and develop new projects with colleagues.
In short, the evidence indicates that this model of capacity-building has been largely successful and can provide a template for future projects.