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Opinion

A letter to Lynne Neagle, the new Cabinet Secretary for Education

05 Jun 2024 7 minute read
Cabinet Secretary for Education, Lynne Neagle

Terry Mackie

Dear Mrs Neagle,

Now that you have been in office for two months as Cabinet Secretary for Education I am sure you have a full in-tray. Every demand on your time claims priority, of course! Your ministry is pre-defined by the exciting era of the New Curriculum for Wales (CfW), our flagship education policy, now operating in nearly all our schools.

You and I go back 25 years to the first education flagship The Learning Country when you were newly elected in Torfaen; I was a senior Education Officer in that same new Council. Heady days of excitement and promise indeed!

Since that time the constant throughout has been disappointing attainment standards nationally with an attainment-deprivation fracture that shows little sign of healing.

Your ministerial challenges are many and varied, but there is one priority area, the New Curriculum for Wales, that is standout, for two reasons: curriculum literally means ‘running through’, it drives everything else in school learning; secondly, you can achieve within a year a lasting solution to the inadvertent curriculum problems that are already troubling all our teachers.

The main curriculum issue is that it’s not the finished article. You have the opportunity with minimal expenditure to complete the job. Do so and attainment levels will assuredly improve as a direct result. Any new curriculum is only as good as the quality of its guidance.

In the words of Lucy Crehan, the Swansea-based curriculum expert, the guidance on offer has to be far more ‘specific’ if it is to give practical support and confidence to all teachers.

Shortcomings

Both Scotland and New Zealand, ten years ahead of us in similar curriculum journeys, are reconsidering their frameworks to be more specific about knowledge, as a result of the painful standards shortcomings they have suffered.

Wales can ironically benefit from their wretched experiences. It would be a dereliction of duty to ignore their planning flaws and implementation gaps which are remarkably similar to what is now acknowledged across our schools as serious guidance ambiguity and omissions.

If we don’t act on greater clarity of knowledge in the guidance we risk the kind of drop in standards PISA has revealed for both Scotland and New Zealand in maths and science -plus reading for New Zealand -over the last decade.

What are the main guidance gaps and how can we fill them? It’s really not that complicated and no one is to blame. Best practice educational change, as Michael Fullan famously said, is achieved when we “assume that successful implementation consists of some transformation or continual development of initial ideas”.

‘Purist’

Being stubborn or ‘purist’’ on guidance, a big part of change effectiveness, is wrong-headed implementation. (The difficult introduction of the 20mph default speed limit is a classic example of poor messaging). The CfW good news? In my experience of speaking to schools the Four Purposes and the Vision of the curriculum are extremely well received.

And the main teacher guidance? The 27 ‘What Matters statements’ and ‘the Descriptions of Learning’, which include Progression Steps, are most definitely not.

They both omit critical clarity on knowledge steps, sequencing and assessment objectives. These seminal documents for our teachers are couched in all-things-to-all-women language; so much so that Ms Crehan concludes “that there is currently very little knowledge that all children in Wales are entitled to”. Primary/Secondary transition is already being compromised.

The What Matters (WM) and the Descriptions of Learning (DL) of guidance are too wooly to be useful to teachers. They eschew:

• The importance of knowledge for all statements
• Specific knowledge to be acquired for learners
• Appropriate sequencing of knowledge
• The difference between ‘topic’, knowledge and skills

The Curriculum Framework guidance was always loosely put together (by design) and many of its nuts and bolts are now found to be loose or missing. Here are just three examples of why our teachers need to see more secure ‘tightening’:

• In Expressive Arts WM: “….learners can develop an understanding of how the expressive arts communicate through visual, physical, verbal, musical and technological means.” Pob lwc with all that, music and art teachers.
• In Languages, Literacy and Communication (a bundle of English, Welsh, Welsh in English Medium settings, International Languages, British Sign Language and Literature) the DL includes this objective at Progression Step 1 (5-7 years) as learners are “beginning to discriminate phonemes aurally in different settings.” A teacher asks how many phonemes approx? 2? 7 or 26? Settings? 2,3 or 6, and what settings? Lord, send me clarity….
• The current laissez-faire guidance sets up the messy thing we call ‘phonics’ in Wales, with the ‘pick n mix’ approach to teaching reading. Cantankerously sticking with the myth “that different learners will benefit from different pedagogical approaches at different ages and teachers are best placed to identify these needs” is indefensible. Our national reading standards, as you are aware, have been stuck at unacceptable levels internationally since 2006.

This tone of guidance fuzziness is repeated formulaically throughout the documentation and Estyn has slavishly followed its opaqueness. What can teachers grab onto? Where is the solidity, the concrete, the stability, the graspable shared meanings in all this stuff? Secondary teachers are in the consolidation business; if primary learners lack a solid curriculum and are taught through a basically local interpretation approach, increasing inequity is all too inevitable at secondary transition…. if not earlier.

No one serious wants an English curriculum with its low-trust view of teacher agency but Wales has fast fallen into the Scottish and New Zealand trap -and we have to get out of that very quickly.

Rewind

What to do? The answer, amazingly, is we have already done it. We just need to rewind a few years. Our groups of Teacher Pioneers (remember them?) laboured long and hard prior to implementation of CfW to produce knowledge-rich and specific statements and descriptions across all 6 Areas of Experience (combinations of subjects), which, unfortunately, did not see the light of published documentation day.

Their proto-guidance was packed with real classroom specificity and clarity. The Pioneers had foreseen the need to convey shared meanings so that good foundations would be common across all schools, with clear sequencing that would be readily understood, from teacher to teacher as children step up through the years. The work has already been done but rejected in the current guidance. It’s not too late; luckily, the drafts still exist.

That’s the finishing task ahead for you. There’s no need to go right back to the drawing board. The finished article of CfW is in your gift, minister.

It’s the top priority for teachers and learners by a mile. The Scots and Kiwis wasted a decade but they have actually done us a big favour.

Summon the best of the Pioneers again and in 6 months they will restore knowledge, clarity and the most teacher-useful specific guidance for schools to complete our Curriculum for Wales. Much more informative guidance can then be issued to all schools.

Cofion,

Terry

Terry Mackie has worked in and for schools in Wales and England for 45 years. He is the author of the 2019 book The Slow Learning Country: Out of the Dim into the Light.


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Annibendod
Annibendod
1 day ago

Terry is spot on and knows exactly what he is talking about. The minister should pay heed to his suggestions.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 day ago

Um, not one reference to the previous Minister, the spurned true love of the Senedd…

Give me strength…

Terry Mackie
Terry Mackie
9 minutes ago
Reply to  Mab Meirion

Why would I bother with him? He messed up. This article is not about blame. It’s about sorting stuff for teachers and classrooms. We need to move on promptly, our kids need best teaching now. I hold no brief for Mr Miles. He was in a long line of not good enough ministers for education, I wrote a very detailed book about that. Happy to send you a copy for a fiver, p & p included. Email me [email protected].

Last edited 6 minutes ago by Terry Mackie
Jen
Jen
1 day ago

Excellent article! Unfortunately Jeremy Miles did not understand the development of the curriculum or the impact of the pandemic on pupils. It is vital that the WG listens to our best practitioner teacners. The present Education Minister has a long tradition of scrutinising Education and finding solutions.

Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
1 day ago
Reply to  Jen

If you have any suggestions for health minister please voice them…

Daf
Daf
1 day ago

This is a good perspective – the current ‘Framework’ (they do love a ‘Framework’ and a ‘Code’ down in Cardiff Bay) – is much too vague, and places too much responsibility on teachers and schools to come up with the curriculum goods. It should also not have been rolled out until schools had a chance to recover from lockdown, but that ship has sailed. For all the talk of equality, the current curriculum ‘framework’ makes it very likely that the gap in achievement between good schools and inadequate schools will get even wider, as so much is devolved to individual… Read more »

Annibendod
Annibendod
1 day ago
Reply to  Daf

We begged them to hold fire didn’t we. They didn’t listen.

Mr Williams
Mr Williams
1 day ago
Reply to  Annibendod

You’re absolutely right.

Terry Mackie
Terry Mackie
2 minutes ago
Reply to  Daf

I agree. Anything that says ‘framework’ is heading for trouble. Same with ‘Code’. The guidance is literally coded. It needs deciphering. I don’t think arguing about rotten timing helps, even though I do side with you. Let’s get on now with fixing this very unhelpful guidance. We can do it!

Mr Williams
Mr Williams
1 day ago

Brilliant article, diolch. I agree with what you say about much of the guidance and WM and DLs. They really do need deciphering! Many of my colleagues, and I’ll admit myself, are struggling to understand some of what is being expected, especially around the ‘progression steps’ – which are as clear as mud! It’s actually very awkward trying to explain to parents how they work, when we don’t really know ourselves.

To be fair, I get the impression that Lynne Neagle seems willing to listen and act. I hope I’m right.

Terry Mackie
Terry Mackie
20 minutes ago

Diolch all commenters. I think we have established there is a communication issue with our curriculum guidance. My strong view (inspired by the thinking of Lucy Crehan) is that the issue is very ‘fixable’. I also note several commenters show confidence in the minister to get going on this repair job. I heartily agree.

I urge Lynne Neagle to prioritise a small task force of teachers to get on with this work without delay and report back in December. Lynne, you sorted school holidays (Mark Drakeford made a chump of himself!) now finish off the curriculum guidance issue. Pob lwc.

Last edited 6 minutes ago by Terry Mackie
Terry Mackie
Terry Mackie
14 minutes ago

See corrected response!

Last edited 7 minutes ago by Terry Mackie

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