Education Minister Kirsty Williams needs to listen to experts’ concerns about Wales’ new curriculum

Image by Birgit Böllinger from Pixabay

Terry Mackie

Dear Kirsty Williams,

Thanks for this opportunity for a public consultation on the draft documents for New Curriculum for Wales. I take at face value your reform architect’s recent appeal that ‘this is no done deal’. Professor Donaldson, who wrote the report on which the new curriculum is based, encourages us ‘to get under the skin’ of the drafts.

The battle lines are now drawn up, as ‘big hitters’ like Professors Dylan Wiliam and Chris Taylor have recently publicised serious reservations about the viability of scaling up the new curriculum across 20,000 classrooms and its risks of widening the deprivation/attainment gap across Wales.

It’s time to re-examine the foundational ideas of the reforms as well as some detail of the drafts.

Firstly, are you personally serious about consultation feedback? After Donaldson’s 2015 Successful Futures report your predecessor, Huw Lewis, accepted 65/65 of its recommendations! That’s worrying.

It is also unprofessional behaviour for some officials to tell critics (including teachers) ‘to wind their neck in’ or label those who raise legitimate concerns as ‘loose lips’ or, worse still, ‘trolls’. They have even started blaming the media for ‘distortions’.

Before I get onto the draft Areas of Learning and Experience (AoLEs), I will amplify the recent critique of Professors Wiliam and Taylor. Wiliam is clear that teachers need much more thinking and planning time to make sense of Donaldson’s emphasis on far more local teaching empowerment. Wiliam wants much sharper central guidance. On those two counts, he deems what you and Donaldson are providing as seriously inadequate.

Taylor, who led longitudinal research on The Foundation Phase revealing no closing of the attainment gap, is exercised about how the same disastrous shortfall may result from New Curriculum – and Wiliam concurs. What does Donaldson say? Nothing concrete; he relies wholly on ‘teacher agency’. Taylor has campaigned successfully to BBC Radio for a separate programme on this critical issue.

Fanciful

This matters a great deal. Donaldson’s fundamentals are being tested in the crucible at long last. His internal underpinnings for what is at best a loose curricular framework are looking shoogly, as my Scottish father would say.

The vision as it stands is not credible – or understandable out there to 24,000 teachers. We are seeing evidence of that in at least four of the six AoLEs, for Literacy, Language and Communication, Humanities, Expressive Arts and Health and Wellbeing. These AoLEs are the very RSJs of the curricular edifice but they show clear signs of jerry-building. Only two AoLEs are anywhere near fit for purpose – Maths and Numeracy, Science and Technology.

Literacy, Language and Communication AoLE is a farrago of a very wide range of disciplinary learning and skills: functional literacy, English, Welsh across a ‘continuum’, literature and international languages. David Williams, a highly experienced secondary teacher, shows in an incisive blog called ‘Curriculum for Wales: The Top of the Mountain’ that draft Progression Steps (Key Stages in old money) mean little as they lack standards.

He notes the differences between some ‘Achievement Outcomes’ at steps 2, 3 and 5 are simply about numbers of languages at play. Too many local assumptions about standards have to be made and David Williams concludes that outcomes for progression Steps are “opaque”.

Some Primary experts have also deplored the complete absence of ‘phonics’ in the guidance. “This multilingual approach will ignite learners’ enthusiasm” seems to indicate that functional literacy is a ‘given’. It is not. This approach is dangerously fanciful.

Humanities AoLE has also recently come under scrutiny by leading historians. Martin Johnes, in a blog called ‘The stories that bind us: history and the new curriculum’ is concerned that the radical redesign “will be based around specific skills rather than specific knowledge.” A total absence of requirement is bad news for Welsh history and “the very nature of Welsh society”.

Diversity and variation across schools will result in patchy national knowledge. Johnes sees the looseness of such a framework as a real risk “to exacerbate the already significant difference between schools in affluent areas and schools that are not”. Chris Taylor might agree.

Bombast

Expressive Arts AoLE is ground I have tilled previously in these pages. I believe it is undoable and will add massively to workload burden by stipulating that “An integrated Expressive Arts curriculum is one which is distinguished by the teaching of a combination of art, dance, drama, film and digital media, and music in one lesson and not in isolation…All the disciplines can be taught within one lesson by one person.” Expressive Arts AoLE is actually true to itself: over-enthusiastic to the point of bombast and a serious danger to teacher welfare.

Health and Well-being AoLE is a completely new concept area of learning, merging together Physical Education, Personal, Social and Health Education, Psychology and Ethics. It will take up a considerable amount of the timetable but the previous commitment for two hours of ‘physical literacy’ has disappeared, says Olympics legend Tanni Grey-Thompson.

It would not be accurate to say this AoLE suffers from being neither fish nor fowl. It’s a complete turkey. It relegates physical fitness, PE, sports and games (these words hardly appear in reams of text) to basic outcomes. What counts in this fearful example of the burgeoning well-being industry is mental health, emotional well-being, positive relationships, making informed decisions about their health and well-being and also to engage critically with a range of social influences.

The whole AoLE reads like therapy for leafy suburb schools worried about mental health. Disastrously, the accompanying video to the drafts is presented by a teacher-robot from the Planet Jargon spouting a language called holistics.

Cabinet Secretary, you need to rethink both the basic concepts and the draft materials produced. Accept critical evidence from experts and great teachers.

Be honest. It’s not too late to reappraise the project. Don’t follow Huw Lewis’ supine example, os gwelwch yn dda.

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