Education reform is at the top of government agendas across the world. The general pattern is one of top-down innovation within which a central team develops a change package that is then rolled out to local authorities and schools. Although the best examples of top-down approaches take full account of the training and resource implications of the proposed reform, there nonetheless tends to be a widening gap between ambitious intention and the reality of the classroom experience of both teachers and pupils. That gap often reflects a lack of ownership and understanding at the point that matters most – the classroom.
The approach in Wales is very different. One of the main features of the Welsh educational reform programme is the extent to which it is building from the classroom out. I have had the privilege in the last few weeks of seeing the Welsh approach in action. Pioneer schools, consortia, Estyn and Welsh Government officials are engaged in the hugely complex task of translating the broad direction of Successful Futures into a working curriculum framework. In so doing, they are evaluating evidence of different approaches from across the world, examining research findings and, critically, reflecting on their own experience and that of colleagues in partner schools.
The pioneers are also testing their thinking with and learning from ‘experts’ on the Curriculum and Assessment Group (CAG), effectively chaired by Carl Sherlock, a Welsh primary headteacher. Earlier this month, the pioneers discussed their initial thoughts about the 6 Areas of Learning and Experience (AoLE) with the members of CAG. The discussion covered very tricky issues relating to the nature and scope of each AoLE, organising principles, pedagogy and progression. I was greatly impressed by the depth and the open and collaborative nature of that discussion.
The pioneers are also supported by a very important action research project involving collaboration between The University of Wales Trinity St David and the University of Glasgow. That project is looking in depth at progression in young people’s learning. Researchers work directly with AoLE pioneers, providing research evidence as appropriate and participating in discussions about ways forward. The complexity of this work should not be underestimated. Progression in learning requires the marrying of the 4 purposes of Successful Futures with decisions about what knowledge and skills matter most, insights about cognitive and emotional development and recognition of the practicalities of the classroom. Success in this very challenging task will be central to the ultimate impact of the new curriculum on learning.
Another important feature of the reform programme here in Wales is its commitment to formative evaluation that can influence the development in real time. Estyn will play a vital part in that formative process and I am delighted to have been asked, jointly by the Cabinet Secretary and the Chief Inspector, to carry out an independent review how that can best be achieved. A further example of this commitment to formative evaluation is the work of an Independent Advisory Group (IAG) that acts as a support and critical friend to the process as it develops. IAG will be working with the curriculum pioneers to help refine and develop thinking as they move to more detailed consideration of the framework. The challenge will be to learn from the work of all of the pioneer groups and agree guidelines that will support the next stage and help to ensure consistency without constraining creativity.
Progress with the reform programme is encouraging but many difficult issues remain to be fully resolved. It is essential that we draw on the experience and creativity of teachers and leaders across Wales, not just in those identified as pioneers. I have seen excellent and exciting work in many schools that are not formally involved as pioneers. We must do all we can to engage such wider contributions in the development.