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Cynefin is a Welsh term that connotes a sense of belonging, of being rooted in a time and space that is nurturing and authentic. As a concept, it has a resonance in any educative endeavour, for we all, as learners, need the interplay between the rooted and the free-floating, between the familiar and the foreign. Movement between the two enables us to experience growth and development. Too much of the familiar, and we go nowhere; too little, and we are stuck in bewildering stasis. Cynefin directs us as educators to the productive use of the ‘rooted’ and the ‘authentic’. Unsurprisingly, it lies at the heart of the recently refocused Curriculum for Wales. Yet its influence crops up in less likely places within the Welsh educational landscape. The desire to produce ‘rooted’, ‘anchored’ material is not restricted to the new curriculum. Indeed, where it does occur, it produces unusual, yet instructive effects.

In England, currently, the language of school inspections is itself the subject of significant scrutiny (Adams, 2024). For Estyn, the school inspectorate for Wales, the issues may be less acute, but studying their reports sheds interesting light. Select any institutional report and navigate to the summative section that explores ‘Learning’ – for instance, Estyn’s recently published report on a secondary school (Estyn, 2023). The report makes substantial use of high-level, relatively abstract, evaluative comments. For example, we are told that ‘across the curriculum and especially in English lessons, many pupils write appropriately at length’ (Estyn, 2023, p. 4). However, this high-level statement is directly followed with the more granular, ‘for example, when writing an explanation of “How and why do Venus flytraps digest flies?” in science’ (Estyn 2023, p. 4). This pattern is repeated many times:

‘… pupils engage well with the opportunities they have to develop their creative skills such as when composing hip hop in music lessons or researching and making a personalised recycled carrier bag in design technology lessons.’ (Estyn, 2023, p. 4)

Each time, the reader is carried with almost dizzying rapidity from the standardised, formulaic vocabulary of evaluation to the hyper-specific. We might ask ourselves, ‘What is going on here?’ The answer lies, in part perhaps, in the developing way an education system is negotiating issues of trust and accountability, and the exploration of this takes us back to the concept of cynefin.

In any accountability framework, such language needs to perform an evaluative function as efficiently as possible to be understandable by a wide range of audiences. Yet this need for efficiency can produce documents that become overreliant on abstracted codes and agreed formulaic references. In short, they begin to develop a language of their own. On one level this is not a problem, since the producers of such documents, and their consumers, quickly learn the accepted forms and modes of expression. It does leave a problem, however, when consumers begin to notice that many inspection reports, in a given education system, sound fairly similar because the accepted codes, forms and references have been recycled so frequently. Readers of such reports begin to doubt their authenticity.

‘Where we lose our sense of authenticity, we are in danger of losing our trust in the whole inspection process.’

Where we lose our sense of authenticity, we are in danger of losing our trust in the whole process. This is significant, because the importance of trust in the successful functioning of schools and school systems is well documented (Tschannen-Moran, 2014). In this instance, for example, the use of overly generic language in inspection reports may mean that we do not trust that the accountability document, the report itself, is tied securely and authentically to a particular school and a real community of educators and learners.

This is perhaps why, in their current iteration, inspection reports in Wales make such an effort to lock in these authentic references. When we read that learners ‘make sophisticated references, such as when exploring the class divide when studying “Blood Brothers”’ we are having our trust in the authenticity and rooted nature of the inspection process bolstered. This brings us back to cynefin, and we can perhaps see, in this small, rather esoteric example from one education system, a willingness at different levels to emphasise ‘belonging’ and ‘rootedness’, and to use this in local and complementary ways to support systemic trust.


Adams, R. (2024, January 29). Ofsted single-word judgments on schools must end, say MPs. Guardian.

Estyn. (2023). A report on Blackwood Comprehensive School.  

Tschannen-Moran, M. (2014). Trust matters: Leadership for successful schools. Jossey Bass.