Curriculum reforms are currently taking place in several more economically developed countries and regions across the world. Wales, New Zealand, British Columbia and more are overhauling their education systems to provide a radical response to changes brought about by globalisation and digital technologies.
In Wales, primary, secondary and special schools are playing an integral part in developing the country’s new curriculum, which will be published in January 2020 with roll-out beginning in 2022. The model for reform is based on the principle of subsidiarity, whereby policy is created from the bottom up. This means that approximately 180 “pioneer” schools are actively involved in shaping the new curriculum.
For our soon to be published study we listened to the hopes and fears of more than 600 teachers at these “pioneer” schools over the new curriculum. Overall, from the surveys, questionnaires and interviews conducted, we found that the teachers are excited and optimistic about the new changes. But serious concerns were highlighted, too, notably over the effects that the curriculum change could have on pupils’ levels of subject specific knowledge.
One major hope the teachers identified was that pupils will be taught under a broader, more holistic curriculum. They think it will reject the current burdensome and prescriptive system which puts too much pressure on pupils and teachers. Instead, it is expected that teaching will focus on more aspects of the learners’ development than merely exam performance, including helping learners see the relevance of study to their daily lives. The teachers also feel that lessons will be more “exciting and inspiring”, and foster more motivated learners.
The second most commonly mentioned hope was linked to life-long learning. The teachers we spoke to think the new curriculum should focus more on skills development, including more vocational skills, combining “technical learning” with “real life” content, and helping pupils develop personal competencies and qualities such as critical thinking, creativity and confidence.
These latter ideas are reflected in the already published four core purposes of the curriculum, which, among other things, aim to ensure pupils become ambitious, enterprising, ethical, healthy citizens and contributors to society. Many teachers said they hope these ideas remain central when the curriculum is implemented, and that they will have the flexibility to shape learning experiences around them.
Ultimately, the teachers see the new curriculum as a way of “lifting” Wales in terms of education, and improving the lives and social mobility of pupils in the country. For example, at present, a third of 17-year-olds think they will have to leave Wales to find the job they want. A new distinctively Welsh curriculum might renew young people’s optimism about their future in Wales.
But the teachers we heard from also have reservations about the new curriculum. The biggest fear identified was that they would not receive adequate levels of support or time to develop it. They worry that this would lead to an overall failure in its implementation, and ultimately it would be abandoned. A number of related issues came to light, too. The teachers have concerns about increased workloads, not enough funding, and some educators lacking commitment and “energy” for the challenge.
They recognise that their aspirations for the new curriculum will require changes to qualifications and accountability systems. Without these changes, the more holistic aspects of the new curriculum are unlikely to be fulfilled. But this has raised concerns over whether wider stakeholders, such as employers, colleges and universities, will accept these changes and how inconsistencies in provision between schools can be avoided. Final decisions about qualifications are still to be made and significant buy in from teachers is unlikely to occur until they have seen these.
Perhaps the most important concern was the suggestion that pupils may lose subject specific knowledge, and that this may affect their progression post-16. A significant number of teachers – 47% of 575 survey respondents – were unsure whether pupils would learn the same amount of knowledge under the new curriculum. They expressed worries that pupils could be disadvantaged by the reforms as a result, saying things like “It will not link in to GCSE, A-Level and degree study and pupils will have less knowledge.”
Tensions to work through
What our data shows is that teachers are on the whole very enthusiastic about the potential benefits of the new curriculum. But there is genuine uncertainty and at times unease about important issues that they do not yet see resolved. These are to be expected, particularly if we consider some of the tensions in teachers’ responses. For example, they want flexibility but worry about inconsistencies across schools.
There are no easy answers to these tensions but what they do suggest is that more clarity is needed about how school performance will be measured, pupils assessed and how their access to knowledge will be maintained. Only transparency will help schools navigate some of these concerns, increasing the chance that more of the hopes than the fears will be realised.