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Curriculum development through professional enquiry: Developments in Wales

David Egan David Aldous Anna Bryant

Since the publication of Graham Donaldson’s report in 2015 (Donaldson, 2015) and the adoption of its recommendations by the Welsh Government, pioneer schools across Wales have been taking the lead in developing a new purpose-led curriculum for Wales (Welsh Government, 2017a, 2018).

‘The next few months represent a critical phase in the process of developing a new, purpose-led curriculum for Wales.’

The next few months represent a critical phase in this process. Recently the Welsh Government has begun the consultative process leading up to the National Assembly for Wales considering legislative enactment to the new curriculum (Welsh Government, 2019). April 2019 will see the publication of a draft curriculum framework, and this will lead to an engagement process throughout the summer term of 2019 when schools and other interested parties will be able to respond to the work of the pioneers. This process will help shape the final version of the curriculum framework which will be published in the autumn of this year. The build-up to the introduction of the new curriculum in primary schools from 2022, and its phased commencement in secondary schools from September 2023, will then follow.

Central to the process of curricula reform is a focus on enhancing and shaping teacher agency and nurturing the professional learning needs of teachers and other staff (Priestley, Biesta, & Robinson, 2015). With colleagues from two other universities in Wales and the professional learning pioneers (one of three workstreams within the network of pioneer schools), we are developing teacher agency through a co-constructed research project based on an adapted ‘critical collaborative professional enquiry’ approach (Drew, Priestley, & Michael, 2016).

One of the pioneer groups we have been working with is focused on health and wellbeing, which is one of the six areas of learning and experience (AoLEs) that are replacing traditional subject areas within the curriculum structure. They have developed their curriculum framework around five ‘what matters’ statements (Welsh Government 2017b).

We have worked with the professional learning pioneers for health and wellbeing to construct a research design and ethical process for a cycle of practitioner enquiries. The first of these involved the pioneers carrying out interviews with senior- and middle-leadership groups within their own schools as a way of beginning to explore the leadership and management implications of introducing the emerging curriculum.

These revealed that while, generally, primary schools believed they would be able to embed this new curriculum area into their pupil-focussed curriculum planning, secondary schools were at an earlier stage of thinking about the implications of this for traditional subject-led delivery and staff deployment. All the schools felt there were significant professional learning implications in terms of teachers and support staff becoming confident in teaching the new curriculum, and they also perceived there to be a range of specialist agencies outside of schools that might be able to make important contributions to this aspect of children’s education.

In reflecting on what for most was their first experience of undertaking structured practitioner enquiry, the pioneers were positive about its value and keen to develop their skills. They are now busily engaged in their second cycle of enquiry, working with groups of cluster schools and undertaking focus groups to explore how the curriculum framework can be used to create local curricula that are suited to the individual contexts in which schools are operating.

As educational researchers we are excited to be involved in supporting teacher agency as a means of curriculum reform, developing professional learning and strengthening approaches to research and enquiry within the teaching profession. Wales’ innovative approach to transforming its educational system (Welsh Government, 2017c; Williams, 2018) can be seen to exemplify the ‘close to practice’ research approach that BERA is promoting BERA (Wyse et al, 2018).


Donaldson, G. (2015, February). Successful Futures: Independent Review of Curriculum and Assessment Arrangements in Wales. Cardiff: Welsh Government.

Drew, B., Priestley, M. & Michael, M. K. (2016). Curriculum Development Through Critical Collaborative Professional Enquiry. Journal of Professional Capital and Community, 1(1): 92–106.

Priestley, M., Biesta, G. & Robinson, S. (2015). Teacher Agency: what is it and why does it matter? In Kneyber, R. & Evers, J. (Eds.) Flip the System: Changing Education from the Bottom Up. London: Routledge.

Welsh Government (2017a, January 9). Announcement of further Pioneer Schools focusing on curriculum design and development [press release].

Welsh Government (2017b) Health and Well-being AoLE: Submission to Curriculum & Assessment Group: December 2017 (Revised following CAG feedback during AoLE workshop 13 December 2017). Cardiff. Retrieved from

Welsh Government (2017c). Education in Wales: Our national mission. Cardiff.

Welsh Government (2018). Formative Evaluation of the Pioneer School Model: Executive Summary. Cardiff.

Welsh Government (2019). Our National Mission: A Transformational Curriculum: Proposals for a new legislative framework. Retrieved from

Williams, D. (2018) Breaking free of the machine: lessons from Wales. In Rycroft-Smith, L. & Dutaut, J. L.(Eds.). Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto. London: Routledge.

Wyse, D., Brown, C., Oliver, S. & Poblete, X. (2018). The BERA Close to Practice Research Project: Research Report. London: British Educational Research Association. Retrieved from