Why I’m becoming increasingly worried about the new Welsh curriculum

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Siân Gwenllian, Plaid Cymru AM for Arfon

Yesterday, the Welsh Government published details of new legislation which is intended to transform the way education is taught in our schools and to raise standards.

Today, Kirsty Williams, the Education Minister, will make a statement on the floor of the Senedd entitled ‘Reform of the Curriculum and Assessment Arrangements – A White Paper on proposals for legislative change’.

Curriculum reform has been on the cards since way before the publication of Professor Donaldson’s report on this subject four years ago.

His report identified the shortcomings of the current curriculum arrangements, which essentially remain as devised in 1988, a world before the internet and the advances in technology and globalisation that affect the way we live and work today.

He argued that the curriculum has become overloaded, complicated and, in parts, outdated.

So the task of re-shaping the curriculum began in 2015 and in the spring this year, the new curriculum will be published in draft form.

However, as Plaid Cymru’s Shadow Education Minister I am becoming increasingly worried upon hearing mounting concerns about how matters are proceeding.

Experts say the new curriculum will be too generalised and that a lot will depend on individual teachers rather than the contents of the curriculum.

One of the teaching unions has said that many of their members have lost faith in the process whilst the Education Workforce Council says there’s a general lack of awareness of the new curriculum among the teaching profession.

The Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) and the Association of Directors of Education in Wales (ADEW) voiced their concerns in evidence to the Assembly’s Children, Young People and Education Committee upon which I sit.

The committee had asked education experts for their opinions on how the reforms are coming together. Reading the 33 responses was at best uncomfortable, at worst very concerning and included some scathing comments.

The responses highlighted lack of progress with developing the new Donaldson curriculum but also far-reaching concerns about its substance.

Some have questioned the so-called ‘Welsh dimension’ noted as being important to the new curriculum. Why do we need a Welsh ‘dimension?’ Surely the Curriculum should be Welsh through and through.

It should be a unique Welsh Curriculum reflecting Welsh experiences and Welsh history. Talk of ‘a Welsh dimension’ stinks of tick-box exercises and I’m not convinced that the Welsh experience will be rooted into its core.

Teachers

Last week, via the press, Kirsty Williams announced that as parts of the reforms, all pupils will follow the same curriculum for the Welsh language from 2022.

Excellent in principle. Most of us would agree that teaching Welsh as a second language has been ineffective in giving young people who do not speak the language at home the skills to use Welsh in everyday life.

But the devil is in the detail.

There is already a shortage of Welsh-speaking teachers – the government said it was working to boost skills but that could take many years. Currently, around one-third of Welsh teachers speak Welsh, which is a good starting point.

According to research commissioned by Plaid Cymru, this number will need to be at least doubled in order to realise the ambition of providing an education system that will produce a million Welsh speakers.

Current strategies for attracting more teachers for the Welsh medium sector are neither sufficient nor comprehensive.

Over the next ten years 3,000 teachers will need to be trained for the primary sector and 2,600 for the secondary sector so we can even begin to achieve the million Welsh speakers target.

Does the Welsh Government have a plan on how to achieve this other than vague statements about providing intensive Welsh-language training to teachers and teaching assistants through a sabbatical scheme? I’m yet to be convinced.

English-medium pupils will not necessarily be expected to meet the same standard as Welsh-medium students under the new curriculum.

It is logical that the Welsh second language GCSE will ultimately need to go, but it is not clear yet how a single qualification for pupils across all schools would work. Lack of clarity around this is creating unnecessary worry among pupils, parents and teachers.

It is hard to believe that the new Donalson curriculum is to be published in draft form this spring given all the concerns and lack of clarity.  This will be the first time the reforms can be properly scrutinized.

I believe the Minister, Kirsty Williams, must now wake up to the many concerns that are being voiced and bring forward a plan of how she proposes to proceed in the face of mounting criticism.

What we are hearing is not at all encouraging. We must not let this fantastic opportunity to modernise teaching and education in Wales slip through our fingers at this late stage.

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