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Introducing a new Curriculum during challenging times

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During the years CfW was being co-constructed, the prospect of the new framework and guidance (we’re careful not to call it a curriculum!) seemed to many of us a far-away thing, not something to get overly excited or concerned about for some time. 

Kath Lewis, Strategic Lead for Curriculum Reform

Over a four-year period, experts, academics, and teachers alike spent time grappling with huge philosophical questions, pondering ‘curriculum’ and what it could be in Wales.  The “wouldn’t it be great if…?”, “why have we always had to…?” and “why don’t we…?” philosophical conversations echoed through corridors, along with the sometimes-heated debates about what should make it into the national framework, and what should be for schools and practitioners to decide. 

These conversations however were happening for the ‘lucky few’ who had secured a seat at the pioneer table.  What then for the others? What for those who disagreed with what they were presented with?  What for those who didn’t want this new way?  The draft was published, the consultation period happened (with 2,103 responses received), the final framework and guidance arrived and regardless of whether you had been sat at that pioneer table, whether you had shared your views through the consultation, or had not been involved at all, 28th January 2020 became Day 1 for CfW; a reset for all, taking everybody to the framework, not to drafts or copies they may have seen or borrowed along the way. 

Before that day, many may have explored the four purposes and considered the pedagogical principles, but it wasn’t until the publication of the framework that we could all work reliably from the guidance and start making sense of it within each school context.  Day 1 marked the beginning of a process that could arguably be the most challenging that Wales’ school school practitioners had experienced since the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988.

And so, we zoom ahead to the present day.  19 months on from Day 1.  In that time we would have been able to get to know the framework, to collaborate within school teams, clusters and networks; to unpick, to ask what might be possible for learners, to consider how to take this national framework – not curriculum – and transform it into a curriculum so befitting our learners that it be unequivocally better than what came before. But that was before the world was changed by Covid-19.  Who could have possibly imagined a pandemic throwing us off course? Stealing time away from us and disrupting lives as it has done?  From CfW being the biggest game in town, for many schools it has become the least of their concerns, the thing they’ll get to but not yet, not whilst they are functioning in crisis management mode. The pandemic has not been forgiving, it has not made allowances for those who hadn’t been part of the pioneer process and needed more time, for those with a huge mountain to climb. Covid has significantly affected all schools, and is continuing to do so, in many cases now worse than ever.  

However, there have been glimmers of hope along the way.  From the challenges and disruptions, we have seen innovation, creativity, and thinking anew pushing through.  Many schools have transformed their ways of working, have adapted practices, refined approaches, and expended large amounts of energy and deep thought to the most fundamental questions of all: “Why are we educating our children and young people and what do they really need from us?“  For many, those questions can be answered with increased confidence because the past year’s focus has been to consider what matters in learning, how children and young people learn (in classrooms, online and in blends of both), and what they can do to support every learner – their big and micro steps in learning, their social and emotional development, their home lives and the communities in which they live. Despite the uncertainty and disruption, many schools across Wales have created a solid foundation for taking CfW forward.  

What remains is for all schools and settings across Wales to look at what matters in learning – the statements of what matters, to look at how learning is described at national level – the descriptions of learning, and as a school or cluster, sequence the knowledge, skills and experiences that will bring those ‘what matters’ concepts and big ideas to life.  And that is no small feat! Practitioners have the day job and learners need their attention and care more than ever, so how do we create the time and space to enable this?

As with everything in life, it starts with small steps.  It starts with knowing you can’t go it alone, and that you don’t have to.  CfW is a huge opportunity but one we can’t tackle in isolation.  We must look to each other to share, collaborate, and combine knowledge and expertise from practitioners across our diverse clusters and networks.  It is about identifying what support and professional learning you need from your region.  

Cluster working and collaboration isn’t a quick fix to an end point, it is of course not without its challenges, however, there is no question from the clusters I have been privileged to work with directly, no off the shelf product could possibly replicate the rewards or the output they have generated from that process.  Collaborating and creating something bespoke at local level is in many ways the holy grail of CfW. 

So what of the many products, schemes or packages we already use or that continue to be offered with the promise of getting schools ‘Curriculum-for-Wales-ready’? Products can of course support curriculum thinking and be something to lean on when schools lack some expertise and confidence to go it alone.  We will be in a transitionary period for some time and there is no denying some schools will draw upon resources, materials, and guidance they’ve found effective or helpful in the past, but perhaps the strongest message we can share is that doing so within CfW comes with caveats. Materials we use to support our planning, teaching, and learning must have been intentionally selected to serve the learning identified and sequenced in our school level curriculum, as opposed to serving the intentions a product has predetermined.  Each school, each practitioner knows what their learners know, understand, and can do, and each practitioner knows what the next steps in learning should be for those individuals.  We must trust those judgements. That level of on-the-ground, in-action intelligence is of far greater value than any generic next steps or activities within a static, published product. We must trust in our professionalism, in the competences we have already and are further developing through professional learning, knowing that our confidence will increase as we continue in the journey to roll-out. 

We need to support and challenge, not criticize; think and consider but not judge, and offer words of confidence and encouragement to each other during these years to come.  CfW is still an exciting prospect but for some it has become an overwhelming change looming on the horizon.  Change is not easy and change on this scale within a pandemic is unprecedented, but it doesn’t mean it is not possible! We need to support each other, collaborate and we will achieve great things for our learners.  Not all at the same time and not without detours, disruptions, and the occasional backwards step, but continue to move forward we must.

Kathryn Lewis, Strategic Lead for Curriculum Reform

  • For support and information on professional learning in your area, contact your regional consortium.

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