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Imagine a country where education is based on trust in schools and teachers. Where the school curriculum is based on broad areas of learning and experience, not on discrete subjects, and a continuum of learning, not divided up into stages. Where assessment is based mainly on teachers’ formative assessment, with standardised testing kept to a minimum. A country where there are no punitive inspections, no academies, no free schools.

You don’t have to look as far as Finland. This country is only 50 miles from Birmingham. This is the future of education in Wales if the Donaldson Report ‘Successful Futures’ is implemented by the Welsh government. The immediate response of Huw Lewis, the minister for education and skills, is very positive: ‘To my mind it is, by far, the most exciting and thought-provoking set of proposals for Welsh education for a generation and truly deserves our attention.’

The report by Professor Graham Donaldson was published on 25 February. It has gained cross-party support from the Welsh Conservatives, Welsh Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru, and it has been welcomed by all the teachers’ and headteachers’ unions in Wales.

A rejection of a narrow prescriptive curriculum and high-stakes testing

Here we present the key themes and recommendations of the Donaldson Report. It is worth quoting from it in some detail. It begins by rejecting the existing model of curriculum and assessment.

‘The high degree of prescription and detail in the national curriculum, allied to increasingly powerful accountability mechanisms, has tended to create a culture within which the creative role of the school has become diminished and the professional contribution of the workforce underdeveloped. 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.’ (p10)

These are damning terms which accurately echo the views of most teachers about policy in England.

The report continues:

‘There was a recurring view that the curriculum had become unwieldy, overcrowded and atomistic, and that it was inhibiting opportunities to apply learning more holistically in ‘real life’ situations, or to use that learning creatively to address issues that cross subject boundaries. A curriculum defined largely in terms of discrete subjects can become directly translated into a timetable within which important cross-curricular learning can be marginalised. In addition, separate subject planning, combined with a narrow interpretation of how best to develop literacy and numeracy skills, was sometimes inadvertently resulting in a narrow and repetitive set of experiences.’ (p35)

We are used in England to new policies just being dumped on top of existing ones with no thought to underlying principles. ‘Successful Futures’ is different. It begins with a set of 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.’ (p14)

The curriculum from age 3 to 16 will be organised into Areas of Learning and Experience: Expressive arts; Health and well-being; Humanities; Languages, literacy and communication; Mathematics and numeracy; and Science and technology, each with a ‘core of disciplinary or instrumental knowledge’ (p38). Each will encompass three Cross-curriculum Responsibilities that should be the responsibility of all teachers: literacy; numeracy; and digital competence.

Education for active citizenship is a theme of the new curriculum. ‘Engaged citizenship requires the kind of understanding of democracy, human rights, interdependence, sustainability and social justice that should inform their personal views and sense of commitment… Active citizenship requires the confidence and resilience that underpin the ability to exert influence and participate in vigorous debate. That confidence should be built on a strong base of knowledge and respect for evidence.’ (p28).

Progression – an end to stages and levels

The Report rejects the division of the curriculum into separate stages. It has ‘had the effect of creating additional transition points’ which ‘can hinder progression and there was evidence that this could contribute to disengagement as young people progress through school.’ ‘The wider accountability context has contributed to an environment within which speed in jumping the level hurdles has become the goal, overriding the need for consolidation and depth in learning as a sound foundation for further progress.’ (p52).

The Report also rejects the idea of ‘levels’. ‘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 five points in the learning continuum, relating broadly to expectations at ages 5, 8, 11, 14 and 16, will provide a ‘road map’ for each individual child and young person’s progress in their learning.’ ‘Each Progression Step…should be viewed as a staging post for the educational development of every child, not a judgement.’ (p53). ‘Progression Steps will therefore be reference points and not universal expectations of the performance of all children and young people at fixed points.’ (p54).

Progression Steps will be based on a range of Achievement Outcomes for each Area of Learning and Experience. ‘Achievement Outcomes will be described from the learner’s point of view, using terms like ‘I have…’ for experiences and ‘I can…’ for outcomes.’ (p54).

Assessment of learning led by teachers

Teachers in England are all too familiar with the dominance of assessment by accountability. In contrast, the Report stresses that ‘Assessment arrangements should give priority to their formative role in teaching and learning.’ (p77).It recognises that ‘learning is crucially affected by how progress and outcomes are assessed and how the results of such assessments are used… Where assessment becomes dominated by accountability processes, as can happen, the consequences for children and young people’s learning can be damaging.’ (p6).

‘Teacher assessment, which allows a wide range of learning to be covered, should remain as the main vehicle for assessment before qualifications.’ (p80). ‘‘External, standardised testing provides important benchmarking information and should be used in combination with school tests and teacher assessment. Its frequency should be kept to a minimum in view of its impact on the curriculum and teaching and learning.’ (p80). ‘Local and national policies and practices for assessment should be carefully designed to be as light-touch as possible, while giving sufficient information to assess progress, and avoid unnecessary bureaucracy.’ (p83).

In England, data is collected every year about every school to measure and judge the performance of students and teachers. But not in Wales: ‘The Welsh Government should no longer gather information about children and young people’s performance on a school-by-school basis but should monitor performance in key aspects of the curriculum through annual testing on a sampling basis.’ (p103).

Putting the Report into practice

Teachers in England are used to new policies being suddenly announced and imposed without adequate planning and support. In contrast, the Report says ‘The proposals flowing from this Review are radical and fundamental, and imply deep and enduring change. The scale of the changes will take time to implement and this suggests that the changes should be carefully phased in as part of a comprehensive implementation plan.’ (p93). Central teams will work on developing the basic curriculum structure in the report, including the Areas of Learning and Experience. And ‘there needs to be an extensive, well-coordinated and sustained professional learning programme that involves all leaders, teachers and other practitioners.’ (p96).

Following the publication of the Report in February Huw Lewis, the minister for education, has opened up a serious debate and consultation process.

‘I cannot emphasise enough that your ongoing participation in the Great Debate will be critical to shaping our new curriculum and assessment arrangements. To get this right everyone must play their part in building our new school system so please be assured that this is not a one-off exercise. I will be coming back to you throughout the process to consult, test and refine our proposals to make sure that Welsh education is seen as leading the way.’

A progressive alternative to both the Tories and Labour in England

As we have said, the teaching unions have welcomed the Report. There are three concerns. One is the pressure that can be exerted by the Tory government. As Gareth Evans warns,

‘More high-stakes testing, tighter budgets and an expansion of controversial “free schools” and “academies” will take precedence across the border and operate in stark contrast to the policies being championed by the Welsh Government. Relations are certain to become increasingly strained and Welsh Labour will need to be on its guard. Despite devolution, the Education Secretary arguably still holds sway over GCSEs and A-levels and is ultimately responsible for the setting of pay and conditions in Welsh schools. It will be up to Education Minister Huw Lewis and his team to fight Wales’ corner. The coming months and years will be a real test of the Welsh Government’s mettle.’

In addition, there are concerns about whether there will be enough money made available to fund the professional development of teachers, including time for preparing for the new curriculum and assessment model, and whether Estyn, the Welsh version of Ofsted, will undergo the same radical reform as the curriculum and assessment model it will be responsible for engaging with.

But the Donaldson Report marks out a progressive agenda for curriculum and assessment in schools in Wales very different from that of the Tories in England, and from the policies of Tristram Hunt. Labour’s election manifesto made no mention of how the new National Curriculum is damaging education, nor any proposal to stop it. It was silent on whether the primary curriculum would continue to be dominated by numeracy, an impoverished notion of literacy, baseline testing, phonics and SPAG tests.

The implementation of the Donaldson Report in Wales will provide a tangible alternative for us in England, one close enough for cross-border visits and information-gathering which can inspire our own struggle against present policy and our vision for the future.

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