Wales is in the process of undertaking a major overhaul of its national curriculum. Until recently, the curriculum largely resembled that put in place by the 1988 Education Reform Act. The new Curriculum for Wales, based on the Successful futures for all review by Graham Donaldson (2015), entails a radical move away from the traditional subject-based approach to one whereby the curriculum is delivered through six ‘areas of learning and experience’. Teachers are encouraged to explore subject knowledge ‘creatively’, making it more student-centred. And, instead of standardised assessments at particular ages, teachers are expected to see learning as developmental rather than in relation to stage completion. It is hoped that these changes will help Wales tackle the achievement gap, which has persisted despite ongoing attempts by the Welsh government to reduce it.
‘We fear that far from reducing educational inequalities, the new Curriculum for Wales may actually exacerbate them.’
Without wishing to question the good intentions of the government, or undermine the efforts of the many schools and teachers who are pioneering the new curriculum, we fear that – somewhat paradoxically – far from reducing educational inequalities, the new Curriculum for Wales may actually exacerbate them.
Of course, there are always risks with any system-wide change, as the capacity of different schools to implement the changes effectively varies widely. However, student-centred curricula carry particular risks relating to resources, flexibility and external accountability. Our research (Power, Newton & Taylor, 2020), which draws on the early experiences and perspectives of Wales’ curriculum pioneers, indicates that these risks are already manifesting themselves.
Resourcing the new curriculum
The Curriculum for Wales will require significant levels of new investment. In general, and as Basil Bernstein (1975) wrote nearly 50 years ago, student-centred curricula are expensive. Sitting young people in rows behind desks and delivering blocks of syllabus-driven subject knowledge is much cheaper than experiential approaches. In addition to the new classroom resources, the curriculum is to be ‘enriched’ through out-of-school learning opportunities. It is already becoming clear from the pioneer schools that these opportunities are unevenly distributed. Bernstein also argues that student-centred pedagogies presuppose a ‘long educational life’. For a child to thrive, he claims they will need a second site of learning, usually the home. Differences in the cultural resources of the home environment and the form of parental engagement already contribute to unequal educational outcomes. Nevertheless, there is a danger that children from poor homes will find it even more difficult to keep up with their more advantaged peers.1
Increased flexibility is one of the attributes of the Curriculum for Wales that most appeals to teachers as it enables them to tailor the curriculum to the particular needs of their pupils. In practice, though, it appears that the focus on ‘relevance’ may mean reduced opportunities to pursue the more academic discipline-based options. Several teachers are looking forward to being able to provide their disadvantaged learners with vocational courses. Related to this is the danger of moving away from external accountability mechanisms. While teachers may dislike the current emphasis given to standardised assessments, they do provide a means of charting the relative progress of different kinds of students. One of the risks of moving away from a common curriculum with clear progression points is that we lose the ability to measure the achievement gap.
In conclusion, while we do not deny the need for some kind of curriculum reform, the radical nature of what is being proposed in Wales carries a number of risks. In particular, our research shows that the process of reform currently underway is in danger of underestimating the extent to which current social and economic inequalities in Wales may be not only perpetuated but possibly even magnified under the new arrangements. For all learners to benefit from the proposed reforms, there will need to be huge levels of investment in disadvantaged schools and the introduction of accountability mechanisms that ensure that disadvantaged students receive a curriculum experience that is equivalent to that available to advantaged students.
This blog is based on the article ‘“Successful futures” for all in Wales? The challenges of curriculum reform for addressing educational inequalities‘ by Sally Power, Nigel Newton and Chris Taylor, published in a new special issue of the Curriculum Journal on ‘Re-educating the nation? The development of a new curriculum for Wales’, published in both English and Welsh.
1. At the time of writing, the overwhelming majority of pupils in Wales are out of school because of the Covid-19 ‘lockdown’, and the damaging consequences of different levels of learning resources in the home are likely be all too apparent on their return.
Bernstein, B. (1975). Class, codes and control III: Towards a theory of educational transmissions. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
Donaldson, G. (2015). Successful futures: Independent review of curriculum and assessment arrangements in Wales. Cardiff: Welsh Government. Retrieved from https://gov.wales/sites/default/files/publications/2018-03/successful-futures.pdf
Power, S., Newton, N., & Taylor, C. (2020). ‘Successful futures’ for all in Wales? The challenges of curriculum reform for addressing educational inequalities. Curriculum Journal, 31(2), 317–333. https://doi.org/10.1002/curj.39