Thursday, 26 February 2015

Detention for Donaldson?

Is the Donaldson Review a "radical" transformation of the school curriculum?
Or just a moderate number of tweaks to the existing system?
Let's see.
(Pic : Wales Online)
Yesterday, Professor Graham Donaldson reported back on his long-awaited review of the Welsh National Curriculum. It's the most extensive review of its kind since the National Curriculum was established in 1988.

The report itself, titled Successful Futures, is a whopper at just over 120 pages (pdf). It's clear from the outset the report wasn't written with the public in mind, but educators and the political bubble; though I'll do my best to get through it and cover the key recommendations.

Prof. Donaldson says the current National Curriculum has "strengths upon which we can build – not least the pedagogy (teaching theory) underpinning the Foundation Phase....the need for change is also very clear if we are to develop a curriculum which supports and enabled world-class teaching and learning in the twenty-first century".

The reforms have been described – by the Welsh Government and others – as "radical". In some respects they are, as there's going to be a significant power shift from Cathays Park to schools. The reform of the curriculum itself however – which is supposed to be the most important part of this – is perhaps not quite as radical as it first appears.

There were 68 recommendations in total.

What's the National Curriculum's purpose?
  • The National Curriculum should be defined as all of the planned learning and assessment activities in pursuit of agreed education policies.
  • The National Curriculum should be designed to help all children and young people develop in relation to four core policies :
    • ambitious, capable learners, ready to learn throughout their lives – set themselves high standards, enjoy questioning and problem solving, can communicate effectively in English and Welsh, can explain ideas and concepts.
    • enterprising, creative contributors, ready to play a full part in life – can grasp opportunities, take risks, apply their knowledge to a wide-range of areas.
    • ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world – use evidence to form their views, are knowledgeable about their culture and history, can understand the impact of their actions on others, the community and the world.
    • healthy, confident individuals – take part in physical activity, know how to keep safe and well, take measured decisions about their lifestyles.
It's said the current goals of the National Curriculum do not have a direct impact on learning and teaching. Other countries, like Scotland, have more specific goals (similar to the recommendations listed above).

Some of the good things about the current curriculum highlighted by teachers and other interested parties include the enshrinement of the UN Charter on the Rights of Children (UNCRC) in law, Welsh language and culture, an inclusive approach to education and the role of schools in civic society - where they're often the heart of a community.

The results of several separate reviews (like 14-19 qualifications, and the Cwricwlwm Cymreig in history), has led to the Donaldson review targeting the purpose of the curriculum on a few key "high aspirations", like creating successful learners, healthy minds and bodies and confident adults.

This means a key requirement of the new curriculum is to produce engaged citizens who understand concepts like social justice and are able to inform their own personal views; views which are rooted in their own culture, but part of a wider global community.

What should the new National Curriculum look like?

IT will be used across the new curriculum alongside literacy and numeracy.
(Pic : BBC Wales)
  • The curriculum should be organised around six areas of learning :
    • Expressive arts
    • Health & Wellbeing
    • Humanities
    • Languages, literacy and communication
    • Maths and numeracy
    • Science and technology
  • Literacy, numeracy and the use of IT should be cross-curricular skills commonly taught by all teachers.
  • Key Stages should be scrapped and replaced with a "continuum of learning" from age 3 to 16, with "progression steps" at ages 5,8,11,14 and 16.
  • Achievement outcomes should be developed for each "progression step" and should reflect the four key purposes of the curriculum. They should be described from the learner's point of view (i.e "I have...." "I can....")
  • Welsh should remain compulsory until age 16, but with a renewed focus on Welsh as a means of communication. Welsh-medium schools should, in turn, act as hubs to support English-medium teachers.
  • When selecting GCSEs, all students should take courses from each of the six areas of learning to broaden their learning experiences, meaning they will specialise later than they currently do.

This is the meat of the review. In some respects it's just extending some aspects of the Foundation Phase, which already features seven "areas of learning". The only difference is that literacy, numeracy and use of IT will be a common feature in all lessons and across the entire curriculum. The importance of literacy and numeracy is obvious, while "digital competence plays an increasingly powerful role in children's lives".

Now it's worth looking at the six curriculum areas in more detail :
  • Expressive arts – Encouraging children to develop their creative appreciation and talent, as well as their performance and artistic skills. This includes art, drama, music, literature, film and digital media.
  • Health & Wellbeing – Helping to build the knowledge, understanding and skills that will enable learners to develop appropriate relationships, as well as deal with difficult issues and decisions they will face independently. Themes include physical education, sex & relationships, parenting, work-related learning and some aspects of humanities (like RE) and science.
  • Humanities – Learning about people, place, time and belief. In news that will annoy secularists, a specific recommendation is that religious education (RE/RS) should remain a compulsory part of the curriculum, though used to developing understanding of other beliefs, not just Christianity (Religion in an independent Wales). Other subjects include geography, history, sociology and business studies.
  • Languages, literacy and communication – Fundamental building blocks for different forms of communication, literacy and learning about language. There's no recommendation that third languages should be taught in primary schools alongside English and Welsh, but instead links between English, Welsh and other languages should be established before secondary school – though foreign languages can be introduced earlier allowing for time and resources.
  • Maths and numeracy – Self-explanatory. Maths is a stand-alone subject, but this is a cross-curricular feature in the sciences, computer sciences and subjects like geography.
  • Science and technology – The ability to learn, to generate and test ideas, gather evidence, make observations and carry out practical investigations. Computing should become an integral part of the science and technology learning area.

The other main recommendation is the replacement of Key Stages with "progression steps" – roughly one every three years. This means in future there'll be one continuous progression through school until GCSEs which can be matched to the pace of the pupil. More-able children, for example, will be able to hit progression steps earlier and encouraged to deepen their learning before taking formal qualifications.

Teaching & Assessments
  • Teaching should be directed towards achieving the four core policies.
  • Teacher assessment should remain the main way to monitor progress until formal qualifications are taken by learners - combined with infrequent external tests. However, the limitations of testing should be recognised.
  • Peer and self-assessment should be developed to encourage learners to take greater responsibility for their own learning.
  • Children should keep an "e-portfolio", possibly including "e-badges" to record key achievements.
  • The Welsh Government should establish an arms-length structure for the day-to-day running of curriculum and assessments.
In terms of teaching methods, there's no single recommendation. However, it's said teachers should adopt a "blend of approaches", which includes developing learners' own critical thinking. This doesn't mean the review dismisses the didactic approach often used in classrooms, but it does imply that outside organisations and bodies could have a role within schools – in particular visits and visitors. So, essentially, more school trips and more self-directed learning/learning through experience.

Wales recently introduced literacy and numeracy tests (effectively a watered-down version of SATS). The review recommends that assessments should "assess what matters" and be relevant and proportionate. The reason for class tests has to be clear - not tests for the sake of testing - and should allow a wider range of learning, which means using testing methods other than multiple choice and/or essays.

What does this mean for schools?

Some aspects of the Foundation Phase could be extended
to older primary school pupils.
(Pic : South Wales Evening Post)
Nursery & Primary Schools
  • Schools will be able to build upon the Foundation Phase and extend some aspects of it to children aged 7-11.
  • Teachers of 7-11 year old children will have much greater flexibility in what they teach and when. They'll no longer have to cover all subjects on the curriculum each week.
  • Teachers can use tests to diagnose difficulties and work on them.
  • Pupils should get the full benefit of primary education, and the open-endedness of the curriculum could lead to them mastering both creative and factual skills.
  • Learning should be "exciting and relevant for children and teachers".

Secondary Schools
  • Greater freedom to plan and raise standards, with no recommended timetable, meaning schools can organise the week, month or year however they please and to ensure pupils get a broad education.
  • The curriculum should stimulate pupils in Years 7-9 where the enthusiasm that results from moving up from primary school is often lost. Learning in Years 7-9 should underpin future qualifications, not act as a "waiting room" for GCSEs where there's a ceiling on what can or cannot be taught.
  • Existing complexity will be reduced for teachers; guidance will all be in one place.

Special schools
  • The new curriculum will be relevant to all children and the six learning themes should be easy to deliver in special schools.
  • Special school teachers may require bespoke training.

The Next Steps
  • Come up with a basic curriculum based on the six learning areas. This includes determining what pupils should learn and how that fits with the four key purposes, as well as the Cwricwlwm Cymreig.
  • A co-ordinated professional learning programme for teachers to familiarise themselves with the new curriculum.
  • The Welsh Government should set the national direction, while schools should lead the way in how they deliver the curriculum in a way they believe suits learners best.
  • The four curriculum purposes and six learning themes should be enshrined in primary legislation.
  • School inspections and school categorisations should be overhauled to reflect the new curriculum.

Pens down!

This could be what the Welsh classrooms of tomorrow look like, but....
(Pic :
There's no set timetable for when the new curriculum will be introduced, but the process could take the best part of a decade - an equivalent transformation in Scotland took six years.

There's good stuff in there, somewhat obscured by the buzzwords.

In short, many of the things I, and other people, have said need to happen are in there. Pupils will take a much broader selection of GCSEs, schools and teachers will be given a lot more freedom in the classroom (though not too much), school timetables and learning experiences will be more flexible and things like IT will be at the heart of the curriculum. I can't knock the vision. I love it.

I particularly like the idea of "e-portfolios" and encouraging pupils to collect gaming-style "achievements" - which might help to re-engage boys in the classroom in particular.

There's one glaring omission - probably because it's still to be determined - but without it, it's hard to  judge whether any of this will be a success.

What precisely will pupils learn?

There's nothing concrete in there about financial literacy, whether PE should be a core subject or Welsh history. These things are mentioned in passing within the report, but that's no better than the situation we have at present.

For example, we don't know what maths or science skills pupils should learn, only that they need to learn maths and science - which is a redundant statement as they need to study those things now.

Until there's a full basic curriculum on the table it's currently rather vague - though still a big step in the right direction.


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