The New Curriculum planned for Wales is a shoddy edifice built on sand – and that’s scary

Children at school. Picture by Lucélia Ribeiro (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Terry Mackie

The New Curriculum for Wales, planned for implementation from 2022, has dominated Welsh educational discourse since 2015 in the same way that Brexit is overshadowing UK political issues.

Our Government has bet the farm on a new curriculum being the brighter future for all its future learners.

But do the opportunities and promised benefits match up to the risks inevitably involved in this educational adventurism?


Let’s first sum up the New Curriculum. Based on Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, which has been nearly 15 years in the making, it consolidates traditional school subjects into six Areas of Learning and Experience (AoLEs).

It replaces Key Stages for 7, 11 and 14 year-olds by five Progression Steps. The curriculum is built on four central ‘purposes’ of education.

External experts designed this framework and groups of teachers have been busy writing new curriculum materials, which are presently in a draft consultation process. The materials re-emphasise the history and culture of Wales. The teaching of the Welsh Language is to be rebooted, though staffing and timetable allocation details have been left hanging.

No bones about all this, we are talking wholesale change for teachers and their learners. Trialling of new materials within the six AoLEs will be continuing until 2022. But all current schools’ testing will carry on.

Some teachers are excited about these new developments (mostly the ones paid for their time to develop materials) but the vast majority of teachers remain to be both persuaded and retrained.

This is seriously time-consuming for a profession labouring with excessive workload and diminishing resources. No research exists that overall standards will be sure to improve as New Curriculum rolls out. The theory is that the changes will inspire better teaching and engage children more.

The Scottish precedent is not a happy one for basic literacy and numeracy outcomes. Their teachers complained that insufficient training and too much top-down guidance bred ‘delivery insecurity’.

But this ignores another obvious explanation: Scots teachers may not really have believed in the reform project itself.

The international history of curriculum reform shows one awkward truth: when teachers cannot envisage the likely benefits of new ways and much more work, they carry on carrying on… teaching.

Teachers are in this sense pivotally sane rationalists. Like parents, they tend not to gamble with the futures of their professional charges. Unlike experts, consultants, civil servants and politicians.

Shonky

Welsh teachers are now deep into the detail of new curriculum materials consultation. The Government ostensibly welcomes all feedback. However, the framework thinking is set in stone since 2015, the six AoLEs are sacrosanct and we are essentially talking now about carpeting and what colour tiles, not the stability of the edifice or its effective construction.

I believe the draft materials already reveal significant subsidence and the employment of some very shonky builders.  Make of this what you will:

“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 with a linking theme enabling learners to transfer skills and collaborate in authentic contexts.”

That’s simply bonkers –then terrifying. A classroom or school theatre space is not The Millennium Centre. A teacher is not Wonderwoman.

What about IT, or digital competence as it is rebranded?

“Learners need to know: about Wales’ contributions to the continual development & use of computational technologies, and their influence on Welsh affairs.”

Why? And how does this help primary learners? Regrettable examples abound like these.

The Languages, Literacy and Communication AoLE is the most convoluted area to grapple with. It is not about literacy in any sense. It focuses on culture and identity.

It’s a mess. In 80 pages it mentions the word ‘verbs’ once and  ‘awareness’ some 24 times. I used to teach modern languages and I find that scary.

Some of the AoLEs are not actually about teaching as working practice but read more like undergraduate essays about ‘integration’ and ‘holistic planning’.

Unstable

It’s concerning that these AoLEs drafts are so woolly after three years planning and millions of pounds spent in multiple meetings across Wales. Our teachers deserve something more substantial than New-Age warm words.

There is something fundamentally forced and unstable going on here. As if the original project building drawings did not make sense when construction started in earnest. These things are far from ‘snagging’ issues.

Professor Dylan Wiliam, commenting on curriculum design, identified that what learners need is “carefully organised, sequential, structured introductions to school subjects”.

These draft materials have been enthusiastically thrown together, poorly sequenced and built on the sand of imagined connections of AoLEs instead of subjects.

And like Brexit, we, who ought to know better, are speculating with the chances of future generations.

Terry Mackie’s 2019 book on Welsh schooling, The Slow Learning Country: Out of the dim into the light, is available by emailing him on iandtmac@me.com.


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