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Welsh New Curriculum Set

13.05.22

Welsh schools are under ‘enormous’ pressure – but when it comes to the new curriculum, there’s much to learn from Scotland's experiences

Scotland began rolling out its curriculum - Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) - in 2010, in the wake of the global financial crisis. The timing, it is fair to say, was not great. The changes that schools were expected to implement had been conceived in what schools and teachers quickly came to realise was a time of plenty.

After the 2008 financial crash, they had to be delivered in a period of belt tightening, when the word "austerity" was being bandied about as much as the word "unprecedented" has been during Covid.

Scottish schools, therefore, were grappling with significant change at the same time as school budgets were being cut; classroom assistant numbers were falling; and the support that local authorities could provide was dwindling as posts in council education departments were reduced.

A few years later, the Scottish Attainment Challenge and the drive to close the "poverty-related attainment gap" brought a welcome injection of funding and gave some respite. But more than a decade on from the beginning of implementation, there is still no sense that the ambitions of CfE have been fully realised.

Spare a thought, then, for the teachers and headteachers in Wales, who are due to start introducing their new curriculum, Curriculum for Wales (CfW), which borrows heavily from CfE, in September.

Welsh educators have been grappling with all the challenges of the pandemic at the same time as trying to develop a new curriculum - not the only thing that is changing in Wales.

At the weekend, the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) conference in Telford heard that, on top of dealing with Covid, Welsh schools "are going through some radical reform, and it's everything".

Kerina Hanson, NAHT Cymru president and the headteacher of a primary school in Swansea, told her fellow school leaders: "There is nothing in our education system that is staying the same in Wales and the pressure that is putting on our school leaders and our teachers is enormous."

So the curriculum is changing but so are qualifications and, as of September last year, the way in which children with special educational needs are supported began to be overhauled.

The way the changes to the curriculum and qualifications in Wales are to be introduced will be familiar to anyone with knowledge of the Scottish system.

In Scotland, CfE was introduced in 2010 from preschool to the first year of secondary. Then, as those S1 students progressed through school, they became the first to undertake the new National qualifications in 2013-14, the new Higher in 2014-15 and the new Advanced Higher in 2015-16.

In Wales, after the new curriculum begins being phased in from September, the new qualifications will be taught for the first time in September 2025, when the first full cohort to experience CfW is due to start Year 10. In summer 2027, the new qualifications will be awarded for the first time.

In Wales - as there was in Scotland at a similar point in CfE's implementation - there is optimism about the potential of the new curriculum but much trepidation about how schools will deliver, and confusion about what exactly is expected of them.

The motion that Hanson was proposing at the NAHT conference called for the government to "relieve the pressure on schools by providing clarity and clear expectations...around what is required for their journey to curriculum 2022 by September 2022".

It called for "a clear set of minimum requirements that are understood by all".

Hanson - and the motion - also raised another issue: that secondary schools are stuck in a no man's land, in being asked to deliver the new curriculum while having little idea of the qualifications pupils will eventually be sitting. The GCSEs are being reformed in Wales but - for the time being, at least - post-16 qualifications, such as A levels, will not be changing.

According to Hanson, the Welsh government is arguing that "the curriculum comes first" and "we will get the exams system right afterwards". But secondary headteachers, she said, "really need that picture of what examinations are going to look like before they develop the curriculum in their schools".

All of these discussions and debates replicate almost exactly what was going on in Scotland at a similar point in CfE's development.

A briefing on CfE for MSPs, published in February 2010, just months before Scottish schools were due to start implementing the new curriculum, highlighted one of the key issues raised by schools and teachers - that "the guidance is too vague".

That document also said Scottish headteachers had raised concerns that they wouldn't know what to teach in early secondary until there was more detail about qualifications.

Wales faces a huge challenge introducing a new curriculum amid the seismic upheaval of the pandemic. One of the few advantages Wales has is that it can learn from Scotland's experience, and the similarities in terms of implementation show that it has been paying attention. But the arguments taking place around it are chillingly familiar to those in Scotland a number of years ago, which suggests the same mistakes could be made, too.

Perhaps the Welsh government is right that the curriculum comes first - but the lesson from Scotland is that the qualifications could make or break the reforms, in secondary at least.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development review of CfE implementation, published last year, said that "despite attempts to reform qualifications, misalignment between CfE's aspirations and the qualification system became a barrier to CfE's implementation in secondary education".

Let's hope - for the sake of the teachers and schools and pupils - that the Welsh government is paying attention, otherwise it could end up with the same mismatch between the goals of its curriculum and external assessment. And all that will mean is further upheaval and reform - just ask any Scottish secondary teacher.

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