We need to prepare our school pupils for Wales’ dysfunctional economy

A young woman reading a textbook

Calvin Jones, Professor of Economics at Cardiff Business School

From 2022 school pupils in Wales will begin to be taught under the new ‘Successful Futures’, curriculum, developed by Welsh Government in collaboration with Professor Graham Donaldson.

Beginning with Year 7, then rolling out across all ages, the new integrated curriculum is the biggest change in school-age education in Wales in the devolution era.

At a time when it is becoming ever-clearer that life outcomes are centrally influenced by early-years experiences, success is critical.

The increasingly fragmented and uncertain working lives faced by current – and almost certainly future – Welsh citizens means that the importance of the curriculum in preparing pupils for work, however defined, cannot be overstated.

With Successful Futures, we have a unique opportunity to teach business and economics (and social science more generally) in ways that connect, for pupils, ‘big’ systems to individual outcomes – including their own.

Making our pupils ‘economically aware’ might be almost as important as making then literate or numerate, and unlike other subjects, almost guaranteed to have an ongoing resonance and importance throughout their lives.

Work

Uniquely for Wales, the Future Generations (FG) Act (and Commission) provides guidance for what kind of society we are preparing our children to be part of and to contribute to – and by extension, what knowledge, competencies and capacities they will need.

It is this Act that can provide the ‘why’ for what our children will learn. The concept of wellbeing is central to the FG Act, and to understanding how different human and environmental systems ‘deliver for Wales’.

It is no great leap to imagine how the concept of wellbeing could be used across Humanities to explain how our physical, social, economic and historical contexts combine to deliver material, psychological and spiritual welfare, and a sense of place and belonging – albeit not, of course, evenly across people or places.

Within this the key objective for economics should to explain how economic systems – both market and otherwise – combine to create and distribute the products and services which underpin our welfare, and to contextualise economic structures and actors within wider society and ecological systems.

Here then is an opportunity to deliver the story of ‘stuff’, and the stories of places and people, in ways that reveal the forces that shape key outcomes for these places and people.

What better grounding to then to helping pupils understand their own potential roles in these places and systems and place careers development and advice within this wider societal and ecological framing?

To show how an economic life is only a part (but a vital one) of a social life, and how this all made possible by the planet that harbours us?

Dysfunctional

Explaining change is as important as revealing structure. My father left school in the Valleys in 1963 with, um, patchy qualifications and worked in factories – all within walking distance of his house – that are now gone.

I left university in 1990 for a well-pensioned ‘job for life’ in a council. Those options are increasingly unrealistic, and the impacts of ‘Industry 4.0’, the ‘gig’ economy and stagnant economic growth must be reflected in a syllabus that aims to equip students for life in the 2030s and beyond.

Moreover (and despite the fact that many of our best students leave), this education should be unapologetically bespoke to Wales: unlike physics, the laws of economics do not apply evenly across place, and Wales has a narrow and in many ways dysfunctional economy that shapes (and limits) opportunity.

We could develop a curriculum that emphasises subsidiarity and gives birth to truly place-based education across Wales, with the students of Pembrokeshire learning about the economy on the beaches, those of Gwynedd next to the hydropower turbines of Snowdonia, and those of Wrexham in the cavernous hangers of Airbus.

And of course, the implication of this is that the economy cannot be taught wholly in the classroom; here we have an opportunity to really involve the firms, third sector, public organisations (and even universities) in Wales in helping shape business education to improve the employability that is such a current concern.

Meanwhile, fundamental concepts that are key to personal success – such as enterprise – can be interpreted for places where, for example, social and financial capital, and familial or peer examples of entrepreneurship, may be scarce.

This reshaping and localisation of economic concepts, together with a focus on wellbeing, provides an opportunity to fit our children better for their future working lives.

But only if we can integrate the teaching of economics and business with careers development advice, and have these conversations in light of the best of our knowledge about which future skills (such as problem solving in complex environments) will be in demand, and what sorts of activities (rather than narrow occupations) will be valued and valuable.

Confidence

If this all sounds a little complicated to you, you’re not wrong. There would be much to do before holistic, integrated, career-focussed and context-aware business education was a reality in Welsh schools.

In particular this ‘bespoke and local’ approach would need careful explanation to parents who like the idea that they can assess the performance of a school via standardised assessments (however false that impression might be, given the social factors that shape pupil performance differently across space).

This is a particular need to explain how an ethically-aware, place based education can actually help students who go on to leave Wales – something we already passionately believe to be true at Cardiff Business School.

My impression after talking to teachers is that the biggest hurdle is the lack of confidence and knowledge amongst teachers themselves about economics, management and business – which of course is not much taught to pre-16-year-old pupils, outside the Business GCSE.

Those teaching history, geography and R.E. (and new teaching entrants) must, before 2022, be given the knowledge and confidence to teach business and indeed social sciences if the Curriculum is to be truly relevant.

Some of this can be achieved by the provision by Welsh Government of a bank of resources, including materials and pedagogic approaches that help teachers deliver core concepts and describe key structural economic features, but which still leave room for ‘localisation’.

The Government might also help schools develop local networks with organisations ‘on the ground’ by engaging with relevant representatives – Federation of Small Business, Institute of Directors, Welsh Council for Voluntary Action etc – at national scale.

An additional approach might be the expansion of problem-based (or project-based) approaches that bound teachers’ required knowledge, at the same time as emphasising a multi-disciplinary approach to enabling pupils’ understanding of apparently ‘economic’ outcomes.

Time

And, as Professor Chris Taylor made clear in a recent lecture, there is a need for us in higher education to step up and help.

The gulf between universities and schools in Wales is considerable, bridged occasionally by specific programmes and by the provision of PGCE and bachelor’s level teacher training (not, one notes, education), but with no sense that schools and HEIs are (along with further education colleges) in any way part of an integrated educational offer.

Successful Futures, which comes already with an appreciation that pre-16 education must fit with A-levels and Welsh Bac, offers the opportunity to build this educational framework in ways that fit with, and contribute to, the goals and ways-of-working of the Future Generations Act.

For a HE sector faced with falling numbers in key UK undergraduate age cohorts and the potentially significant impacts of Brexit, there is the opportunity to teach different people different things.

For my Business School and those like it there is a particular opportunity to help ensure that teachers in Wales have the knowledge and competence to teach business and economics in ways that are topical, interesting and applicable.

We have the time before 2022 – just about – but we also must lever the resources to engage both teachers and university lecturers in a programme that would build on past provision and benefit both sides, and of course the school pupils themselves.

So this would not be easy: it requires a deep change in the way public and quasi-public institutions work, and in the behaviours and attitudes of those that work in them.

But this is true anyway of the new Curriculum and of the Future Generations Act. These are things that if done half-heartedly, are best not done at all.

In the area of business education we have a clear and present need, hence a strong rationale for action, and a clear and distinctive set of objectives.

The only question is whether the education system in Wales has, across its varied stakeholders, the capacity and incentive to make this a reality.

So, people. Give me your inset days…

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13 Comments

  1. The concept of ‘place based education’ is great. I can recall doing projects about tourism and the fishing industry in my own home area back in the 1960s and developing and really connecting with the local economics and social history as a result. In fact, I would love to be involved in supporting such projects again 50 years on! It did help shape my goals, thought albeit later in my career. However, as is also rightly alluded to, we need to be consider that despite Brexit we live in a global economy and children need to be aware of and be equipped to look beyond their more immediate horizons for opportunity and growth.

  2. Red Dragon Jim

    Fantastic article to read. It’s getting into the idea of Wales being a composite of its ‘places’ and their economies. Localism at the heart of nationhood. There’s something very decentralist about this but it seems more relatable than processing school leavers into bland city region economies (I accept this will happen anyway but it’s not going to make a difference).

    How can this ‘stuff’ be properly implemented? I’m surprised and dismayed that the new curriculum doesn’t even start until 2022.

  3. This is exciting stuff from Calvin Jones. It resonates, though in a different way, with a submission I sent in a Welsh Government consultation on the Cwricwlwm Cymreig a few years ago. I suggested an International Curriculum for Wales and offered a few illustrative themes for exploring Welsh history in an international context: the Formation of Britain: Enlightenment, Reason and Religion: Modernisation, Industrialisation, Radicalism and Democracy; Wales and the Colonial Experience. The national and the local need not be ‘narrow and inward-looking’. Wales in the world, the world in Wales

  4. We also need to review our dysfunctional Higher education sector to prepare for the major problems ahead, and turn out the doctors, teachers and other professionals we need. As surveys suggest that graduates tend to settle and contribute within 20 miles of the college they attended, we need to study the Scottish Higher Education sector- e.g.”No tuition fees for Scottish students studying in Scotland” and develop our own HE sector. For example we send far too many over the border to study medicine, when we could educate them here [Beth am Ysgol Feddygol Gogledd Cymru?]

  5. What a load o middle class bolox! Dysfunctional . . . edrychwch ar eich hunan/look at yourself before offering solutions.

    If this is going to be the future, duw a’n helpo.

    Britain, and sadly therefore also Cymru is a cast society, and is becoming more so. Learning may help the rich, it cannot help the poor until we dismantle social casts – and many of your MC readers would be very reluctant to give up the privileges that come with their rank.

  6. jim humphreys

    Believe it or not, there are still occupations such as plumbers, electricians, bakers, butchers, bricklayers, mechanics, bus drivers,
    sewagw workers, and so the long day wears on.

    • jim humphreys

      Okay, maybe a little hasty there, but;

      Can we first ensure that our children have access to lead-free water?

      Also, should boys be educated in a different way from girls?

  7. The idea of engaging schools with their local areas is an excellent one. Curiously, some of the most impressive turnaround stories where struggling state schools in deprived areas have come good are to be found right on our doorstep, in Shropshire and more specifically Telford. The secondary schools there are consistently good, while the story of Wombridge Primary School is particularly impressive:

    https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/failing-primary-school-pupils-assualted-11920147

    [Don’t be put off by the strange URL: that’s not what the article is about at all].

    Some quotes:
    “The turnaround in the kids’ behaviour since we started on the new curriculum has been nothing short of amazing.”

    “When we were thinking about new the curriculum, we decided two really important things to children’s futures in Shropshire are computing and farming.”

    Some of the children are now earning Computing GCSEs while they’re still in Year 6!

    More generally, the Welsh education system is broken in all sorts of ways after 20 years of Labour and Plaid being in charge. The PISA results speak for themselves. My old ‘bog standard comprehensive’ in Wrexham was an excellent school when I was there in the 1980s, despite much of its intake coming from an extremely rough council estate where most of the kids spoke with thick Scouse accents. Nowadays it’s so bad that it depresses house prices for miles around. It makes me incandescent with rage when I think of the money being spent on students being subsidised to study in English universities when the Welsh government ought to be investing in the Welsh university sector. I’m also convinced that a thriving private educational sector rises standards across the board – certainly it’s a key part of the mix in Shropshire – and the stunted private sector in Wales should also be a matter of concern.

  8. A lot of really interesting things here. There are so many angles that can be intertwined, in a way that could give many of a disillusioned student a real insight into a lot of things that they may genuinely be able to achieve. We could also knock down a lot of the mythology. For too long we have thought of teenagers along the old grammar-secondary modern lines i.e. either academically gifted or more suited to a trade.

    You can succeed in the commercial world through a good mix of social skills, guile and nouse, but if you start at the bottom it’s a long road to get to the top and very few will get there. An insight into the way operations really tick and all the alternatives that could be considered would be invaluable. I suspect few of our pupils will know what actually happens strategically in the business world or the mind set and games played by those running businesses – knowledge here could help people prosper on one hand or perhaps more interestingly challenge the status quo on another level.

  9. I look forward to seeing some actual curriculum statements and (especially) assessment details. It sounds good in principle – but so did PSE. And ESDGC. And the Curriculum Cymreig. And all of them got mashed into lipservice and box ticking for Estyn to a greater or lesser extent.

    I remain totally unconvinced by PISA as a meaningful measure – there’s always more than one way to score well in that style of assessment and some have lasting impact on learning and some don’t… And it’s hard to see what correlation they have in the real world or how you could apply lessons from high scoring countries – there appear to be few similarities between the curriculum or pedagogies or economic outcomes of those countries which routinely score highly.

    That said, I agree with huge swathes of the Donaldson report:

    “The curriculum, has become overloaded, complicated and, in parts, outdated. Assessment arrangements are not making the contribution they should to improving learning. Many of the most worthwhile intentions for children and young people’s learning will be difficult to assess. Overemphasis on a small range of outcomes (especially when they are linked to high-stakes assessment) risks narrowing the curriculum and there is evidence that this is the case in significant numbers of schools in Wales. ”

    The report talks a lot about “Assessment for Learning” – which is very worthy. Every teacher I know, including myself, agree that AfL is the way to go if you’ve got time to implement it with quality feedback and timescales to address those common features where people need more teaching or practice to improve or deal with misunderstanding.

    Unfortunately, what we have actually HAVE an awful lot of at present is not so much AfL as, “Assessment for Reporting Back To Government On How You’re Doing So They Can Use It As Propaganda” and “Assessment for Finding Those Measures Which Are Easiest To Compare Across Schools and Settings”

    Not forgetting the always important. “Assessment for Making Sure The Kids Are Going To Pass That OTHER Assessment Which Will Be Used In The Headlines To Beat Us With Otherwise”

    Or AfL reduced to a set of checklists for the format in which you give feedback on learner work.

    It’s going to take more than a few inset days to embed meaningful change. Those who fund and inspect our schools seem to still be labouring under the delusion that one can fatten a pig by weighing it.

    • Leia, you’ve got it bang on right. Why doesn’t anyone do what teachers suggest? I mean, I trained for 4 years to get my degree in education with FQTS. I studied education theory and practice, how children learn, what they ‘need’ to be effective learners… and then spent the next 20 years doing the exact opposite of what is considered excellent practice because politicians knew better. I got out because it was heartbreaking.

      • It’s maddening yes. maybe we need to tackle it from the other direction and encourage teachers to go into politics instead – like the 314 Project in American trying to get scientists to run for office and garner support for them when they do!

  10. Tame Frontiersman

    Wn i ddim yn wir. “Hipsterism” fu’r gair Saesneg a ddaeth i’m meddwl ar ôl imi ddarllen adolygiad o’r Cwricwlwm Cenedlaethol (“Dyfodol Llwyddiannus” 2015) gan yr Athro (o’r Alban) Graham Donaldson. Derbyniwyd ei argymhellion yn llawn gan Llywodraeth Cymru. Nid oedd fawr o ddadl. Syndod, o ystyried pa mor bwysig yw addysg i unrhyw wlad. Amser a ddengys.

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