The last few months have posed exceptional challenges for everyone involved in supporting the well-being of the young people of Wales. In particular, teachers, headteachers, parents and carers have had to overcome personal pressures and anxieties as they have sought to engage with the learning of their young people. Observing all of this effort, I have been struck by the ways in which the Welsh educational reforms could help chart a path through the uncertainties posed by the current situation.
The Bill which will establish the legislative basis for the new curriculum has now begun its passage through the Senedd. However the new legal framework will look very different from that which has existed since the 1990s. Schools will have much greater scope to shape the learning of their young people in ways that better reflect their needs. The four purposes that lie at the heart of the Curriculum for Wales (CfW) signal the critical importance of building the desire and capability to learn throughout life; of being able to connect and apply knowledge; of being enterprising and creative; of becoming ethical and informed citizens; and, crucially, of understanding the factors that enhance health and well-being.
One of the lessons that has been reinforced during this disrupted period is the importance of having strong links between the school and the home. CfW, as a purpose-driven curriculum, can provide the sinews that bind in-school and out-of-school learning. By setting specific learning activities in the wider context of the purposes, a common language and sense of purpose can be established across teachers, students and the home.
The structure of the new curriculum, given possible restrictions in the time for formal teaching in September, may also help to address what aspects of learning should be given greatest priority. All six areas of learning and experience are integral to the curriculum as are the cross-cutting responsibilities of literacy, numeracy and digital competence. However, by being clear about ‘what matters’ within each area there is scope to concentrate learning in ways that are not simply about the accumulation of more and more knowledge. Learning activities can be shaped to reflect the expertise and opportunities offered by an in-school or out-of-school setting. Assessment that is designed to support learning rather than attempting to grade by broad levels can also help to use precious time to maintain focus on progression rather than labelling.
The very strong emphasis on health and well-being in CfW will also be particularly important as young people seek to make sense of and adjust to the conflicting pressures they are facing. Well-being should not be seen as an extra that is somehow shoe-horned into a curriculum that appears to value the accumulation of knowledge as its overriding concern. CfW addresses the importance of physical and mental health and recognises the direct relationship between well-being and learning.
Similarly, the commitment to digital competence for all students seems particularly prescient in the current context. As we move through the very real constraints arising from Covid19, the opportunities offered by digital connectivity have been highlighted and their achievability accelerated. Digitally enhanced learning should not be seen as a short-term necessity but as integral to a rich future environment that can promote greater independence and collaboration. While the current context has highlighted serious inequity in students’ capacity to access digital learning remotely, their future world will be digital and we must continue to create the conditions for equal access to the skills of independent learning that it will demand.
The prize for Welsh education will be to use the new CfW framework to help schools and parents to see their way forward in the face of the current uncertainties. As we move beyond the pandemic, the experience gained could provide a strengthened platform for full realisation of the opportunities for exciting learning and higher standards offered by CfW.