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Sucessful Futures – The Donaldson Review into Curriculum and Assessment in Wales

Last wednesday saw the publication of ‘Successful Futures’ – the report to the Welsh Government by Graham Donaldson, the man tasked with conducting an independent review of the curriculum and assessment arrangements in schools in Wales.

This blog post started as an attempt to provide a summary of the proposals in the report, but at over 2800 words is not much of a summary of probably the longest thing I’ve ever posted on this blog. I did consider breaking it into several posts, but I’ve decided against it for now. I may come back and have a go at a summary of the summary later in the week. The BBC have provided this overview which is worth taking a look at if you’re looking for something more visual, and Gareth Morgan has already blogged his take on the report, especially in relation to the recommendations around Digital Competencies.

I was lucky enough to meet with Professor Donaldson twice in the time he was writing the report, both times as a participant in the seminars he put together to kick the tyres on some the ideas he was developing over the process. I think that has given me an appreciation of the enormity of this task! The report itself comes in at 120 pages and is a thorough, detailed, but (I think) fairly accessible overview of not just what Wales has now, but how we ended up here and how it compares to what is going on in a global context. I think this is really important. We’re a small country still dominated by the English media and where our education system is report on it is largely when being used as a political football being kicked backwards and forwards between London and Cardiff Bay. If this report helps set the forthcoming ‘great debate’ in a wider context then so much the better. It did make it very clear how unlike many of the most successful education systems in the world the English system is, and hopefully we can start to tear ourselves away from our tendency to constantly compare ourselves to our friends and colleagues over the border.

The report makes 65 recommendations, but I would actually strongly suggest you read them in the context of the report, rather than just jump straight to the final chapter. This blog post attempts to provide an overview of what each chapter contains, alongside my thoughts and reflections of what that might mean for the future.

Chapter one provides an overview, and makes it clear that this is not simply a review of what we teach, but of the full system, including assessment:

Where assessment becomes dominated by accountability processes, as can happen, the consequences for children and young people’s learning can be damaging.

The report is set firmly in the changing political context of education in the last 30 years, and draws our attention both to things that Wales is doing well, but also lessons that we must learn from ourselves.

Expectations about what schools should be doing have grown inexorably while evidence about how to bring about improvement has remained elusive. There are important lessons to be learned from this experience.

While I don’t want to get bogged down in quoting ad-nauseam from the report, I do want to include this from page 10, which for me not just sums up where we are, but the biggest challenge in getting this new curriculum adopted:

The extent of legislative control and associated accountability mechanisms, seen as necessary at the time, have inhibited professionalism, agility and responsiveness in dealing with emerging issues, and have forced too-frequent political intervention in non-strategic matters. For many teachers and schools the key task has become to implement external expectations faithfully, with a consequent diminution of local creativity and responsiveness to the needs of children and young people. Partly as a consequence, much of the curriculum as experienced by children and young people has become detached from its avowed aims and too focused on the short-term. At its most extreme, the mission of primary schools can almost be reduced to the teaching of literacy and numeracy and of secondary schools to preparation for qualifications.

 

Chapter 2 provides and overview of the process undertaken by the review, and outlines a set of ‘principles of curriculum design’ developed by the review:

Principles of curriculum design – the curriculum should be:

authentic: rooted in Welsh values and culture and aligned with an agreed set of stated purposes

evidence-based: drawing on the best of existing practice within Wales and from elsewhere, and on sound research

responsive: relevant to the needs of today (individual, local and national) but also equipping all young people with the knowledge, skills and dispositions for future challenges as lifelong learners

inclusive: easily understood by all, encompassing an entitlement to high-quality education for every child and young person and taking account of their views in the context of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), and those of parents, carers and wider society

ambitious: embodying high expectations and setting no artificial limits on achievement and challenge for each individual child and young person

empowering: developing competences which will allow young people to engage confidently with the challenges of their future lives

unified: enabling continuity and flow with components which combine and build progressively

engaging: encouraging enjoyment from learning and satisfaction in mastering challenging subject matter

based on subsidiarity: commanding the confidence of all, while encouraging appropriate ownership and decision making by those closest to the teaching and learning process

manageable: recognising the implications for and supported by appropriate assessment and accountability arrangements.

 

While these lists can be so vague as to cover a multitude of sins, there’s a few things here I think are worth noticing, especially the idea of a unified curriculum and the idea of subsidiarity. This is explained in more detail later in the report (p99):

Charles Handy describes subsidiarity as ‘…the idea of reverse delegation – the delegation by the parts to the centre’. Subsidiarity means that power stays as close as possible to the action. Rather than relying on a set of rules, which suggest a lack of confidence and can breed corruption, subsidiarity is dependent on mutual trust and confidence which supports positive disagreement and argument. Subsidiarity is about ensuring that power is where it belongs – rather than about empowerment which involves someone in power giving something away

 

I suspect that the final point in the list about being manageable will be one of the key drivers for any change in the way that this new curriculum is developed and one I hope that WG really understands and embraces. There are references in the final chapter of the report about learning the lessons of previous, well-intentioned changes, and there is much for us to reflect on and learn.

The report goes on to outline the review process, including the meetings with stakeholders (including lots of students), links to the 5 Task and Finish reports previously commissioned by WG, and last year’s OECD report on the education system in Wales. The call for evidence got over 700 responses and is summarised in a separate document, but the report notes that:

There is a sense that a more general enthusiasm for learning has been sacrificed in the race for qualifications.

 

Chapter 3 develops the principles of curriculum from chapter 2, links them with the relevant recommendations from the various task and finish groups and proposes the following as purposes for the curriculum:

The purposes of the curriculum in Wales should be that children and young people develop as:

› ambitious, capable learners, ready to learn throughout their lives

› enterprising, creative contributors, ready to play a full part in life and work

› ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world

› healthy, confident individuals, ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society.

 

Again, these lists can be criticised for covering a multitude of since, but I’m personally glad it’s there, not least because some of these areas I suspect are being sidelined in schools and this may be the prompt we need to try and rebalance our curriculum a little.

It’s worth having a look at the full list which you can find here.

 

Chapter Four looks at the structure of the curriculum itself and sets out it’s stall early on:

The evidence collected during the course of the Review strongly suggests that despite successive modifications, the philosophy, form and content of the current national curriculum require significant change.

The report considers both the breadth of the curriculum and how progression is measured. The section of breadth starts by pointing out:

 The ‘subject against skill/competence’ debate represents an unhelpful polarisation, since both make important contributions to fulfilling the purposes of the curriculum.

The report goes on to suggest that the new curriculum is organised throughout the year groups into six ‘Areas of Learning and Experience’ (the report is at pains to include the final two words, even if they’ve already been lost from some of the media reports). They are:

  •  Expressive arts
  • Health and well-being
  • Humanities
  • Languages, literacy and communication
  • Mathematics and numeracy
  • Science and technology.

I’ve already seen tweets from secondary subject teachers complaining that this marks the death knell of their subject. It really doesn’t. The report itself points out that these areas are ‘not timetabling devices’, and actually as a History teacher I’m really pleased to see the option to make more valuable links between my subject and others – interdisciplinary learning is being proposed here, not dumbing down.

Within and across these six Areas of Learning and Experience, the review recommends that Literacy, Numeracy and Digital Competence should be cross-curricular responsibilities of all teachers. Like Gareth Morgan, I’m pleased that the review has used the term ‘Digital Competence’ rather than ‘Digital Literacy’, and the section on the development of this leans heavily on the ICT Steering Groups report. While coding and computational thinking are important and mentioned (as separate things) they are also clearly not synonyms for Digital Competence, and something those of us with an interest in this area will need to be careful about reiterating.

The rest of the ‘Wider Skills’ the report proposes should be embedded within the Areas of Learning and Experience, rather than have their own frameworks which would:

introduce further complexity into the design of the curriculum, and that would replicate some of the concerns about the current situation. Schools and teachers will be able to focus on devising suitable learning, teaching and assessment activities that reflect these wider skills.

 

The six new Areas of Learning and Experience (all with equal importance) are laid out in more detail on pages 43 – 51 of the report.

 

The second part of the chapter four goes on to look at ‘Progression steps’. It highlights the problems with the current systems, and goes on to recommend the removal of all phases and key stages and replaced with a ‘continuum of learning’ for each of the six Areas of Learning and Experience and three Cross Curriculum Responsibilities. These steps will be described at five points, broadly expectations at 5, 8, 11, 14 and 16. These steps would look backwards towards the Routes for Learning framework and forwards towards the examinations system. There are a couple of quotes worth pulling out at this point:

 Learning should be seen as akin to an expedition, with stops, detours and spurts. Progression should be signalled through Progression Steps, rather than levels. Progression Steps at regular intervals will provide a ‘road map’ for each individual child and young person’s progress in their learning.

and

Progression Step 5 will be available for young people who securely reach Progression Step 4 earlier than the end of Year 9, enabling them to extend and deepen their learning before they embark on qualifications. In due course, qualifications should be amended to articulate with Progression Steps 4 and 5

 

Of all the areas of the report this is the one I think I’m having the hardest time imagining. I love the idea, but I’d like to see some examples in practice. I suspect this is going to be one of the key areas we need to get right to ensure the success of the curriculum as a whole. It also seems to set up the potential reform of the LNF towards something more useful and useable than the current version.

The next section discusses the place of Welsh language in the curriculum, and makes a series of recommendations around strengthening that element, including reviewing the provision for Welsh as a second language. For such a potentially thorny issue, again the review seems to have done a good job of listening to experts and navigating a potential minefield toward something meaningful and useful.

 

Chapter Five, perhaps slightly unexpectedly, looks at Pedagogy. It opens by stating that:

To be clear, the recommendations of this Review do not imply an emphasis on any particular teaching approaches: decisions about teaching and learning are very context and purpose specific, and are best taken by teachers themselves. It would, therefore, not be appropriate for this Review to offer detailed prescriptions on teaching methods.

It then goes on to layout 12 pedagogical principles for the development of this new curriculum. Namely:

  1. Good teaching and learning maintains a consistent focus on
the overall purposes of the curriculum

  2. Good teaching and learning challenges all learners by 
encouraging them to recognise the importance of sustained 
e
ff
ort in meeting expectations that are high but achievable 
for them

  3. Good teaching and learning means employing a blend of 
approaches including direct teaching

  4. Good teaching and learning means employing a blend of
 approaches including those that promote problem solving,
 creative and critical thinking

  5. Good teaching and learning sets tasks and selects resources
 that build on previous knowledge and experience and engage
 interest

  6. Good teaching and learning creates authentic contexts for learning

  7. Good teaching and learning means employing assessment for
learning principles

  8. Good teaching and learning ranges within and across Areas 
of Learning and Experience

  9. Good teaching and learning regularly reinforces
 Cross-curriculum Responsibilities, including literacy,
 numeracy and digital competence, and provides
opportunities to practise them

  10. Good teaching and learning encourages children and young
 people to take increasing responsibility for their own learning

  11. Good teaching and learning supports social and emotional 
development and positive relationships

  12. Good teaching and learning encourages collaboration

On the one hand some of these could be seen as shot across the bow for anyone looking to try and hijack this report for their own edu-political aims, although that again seems somehow far less likely in Wales than in England. But it’s also funny how uncontroversial they look (at least to me) away from the perhaps slightly distorting lens of the education blogs.

Chapter six looks at the issue of assessment in the context of this new curriculum, and takes a scythe to the current system that has grown up around the curriculum over the last twenty years. One of the real strengths of this report in my opinion, is the way that it keeps linking its proposals back to its purpose, and there’s probably nowhere in education that we need to make that reconnection more than in the area of assessment. The review proposes that Teacher Assessment should continue to be the main vehicle for assessment outside the examinations system, but that that should be primarily focussed on formative feedback, but with more effective moderation on that which is used for comparison. There is a clear call to reduce the frequency of external testing, with a suggestion that the Welsh Government moves to a sampling model for it’s own purposes.

One of the striking features of the report is the voice of the learner that comes through from the engagement stage through the recommendations. The report looks to try and embed that in the future of the system by, for example, recommending that reports to parents should include contributions from children themselves.

It was also interesting to see the idea of e-portfolios and e-badges being discussed as potential future avenues for assessment being discussed.

Chapter seven lays out the implications of the report, and it would be fair to say this are wide ranging. I think the Minister described them as ‘seismic’. It is clear that there will be much linking between this report, the Welsh Government’s ‘New Deal’ proposals, and the report into ITT and teacher development by Prof Furlong which is due out later this month, and with those links the sense grows that we may actually undertake a serious and wide-ranging shake up of the education system in Wales. It won’t be quick – there is no timescale suggested, but the report does point out that both the Scottish and Northern Ireland reforms have been undertaken over a decade. We also have much to learn from our own mistakes in Wales. The report points out that..

The general feeling was that while the policy 
aspirations had been generally accepted as appropriate, insu
ffi
cient account had
often been taken of the complexities of implementation

The other elephant in the room of course is resourcing. Will there be any extra money?

Finally, chapter eight provides a summary of the conclusions and recommendations of the report. As I said, if you want something less than the full 120 pages you can go straight here, but I’d strongly suggest anyone with an interest in Welsh education takes the time to go through the whole thing.

 

There’s much to ponder. This doesn’t pull any punches about the scale of the task ahead. But there is also much to be optimistic about. I’m already up to almost 3000 words and there’s lots I’ve skipped over. I’m looking forward to the ‘Great Debate’ events later the month with the chance to hear from other people in the education community and get their views.

There is a compelling vision for what an education system can produce in these pages. It’s up to us now as teachers in Wales to get involved with this and help shape it.

 

Dave Stacey

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