It’s just under three weeks before Wales’ rugby elite lock horns with Scotland at Murrayfield. Off the field, the atmosphere in Edinburgh will be cordial and relaxed; a travelling army of Welsh men and women will be suitably welcomed and rivalries put to one side.
But it doesn’t need a rugby match to bring two nations together, and the same spirit of goodwill and respect is also evident across our respective education systems. Relations between education ministers, civil servants, schools and teachers have never been closer – for we in Wales are setting out on a journey of discovery that our friends in Scotland started many moons ago.
Curriculum for Excellence, seen by many as the precursor for Wales’ Successful Futures, began life in 2004 with a reimagining of the values, purposes and principles that underpin statutory education in Scottish schools. It promised to transform education in Scotland by providing “a coherent, more flexible and enriched curriculum” for learners aged 3 to 18, with a firm focus on the needs of the individual child.
But the Scottish experience has not been altogether positive and there have been challenges – of that there is no doubt.
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Curriculum for Excellence has been plagued by claims of unnecessary bureaucracy, increased teacher workload and confusion about its aims. Scotland’s very noticeable decline across all Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) measures has added fuel to an already raging fire.
All this is relevant, of course, because of Wales’ unashamed admiration for Scotland’s approach to curriculum reform – and the fact that Professor Graham Donaldson, the architect of Wales’ Successful Futures, was himself a founding father of Curriculum for Excellence.
Keir Bloomer is another such expert (he, too, was integral to the birth of Curriculum for Excellence) and was, for me at least, the main draw at a recent education event hosted by the Institute of Welsh Affairs, where the audience included education minister Kirsty Williams.
Bloomer was the keynote speaker at the launch of the IWA's Common Purposes report into Wales' curriculum project and was not shy in coming forward with lessons we can learn from colleagues north of the border.
“Curriculum for Excellence,” he warned, “has fallen well short of its potential”.
That no attempt was made to explain proposed changes to the broader community or to engage the teaching profession in “any serious exploration of the big ideas and how they might be put into practice” was, in his view, Scotland’s first big mistake.
“In short, too much was taken for granted. As a result, Curriculum for Excellence has always been subject to a myriad of conflicting interpretations.”
Bloomer continued by suggesting that not enough was being done to build capacity in the Scottish system, noting that while some teachers welcomed the freedom afforded by the new curriculum, “many more felt insecure and threatened”.
“This lack of professional self-confidence resulted in numerous calls for guidance. The original aim had been to develop a limited amount of high-level advice. Soon, however, a large-scale industry had been created, producing guidance by the ton.”
The first published draft of our new curriculum in Wales will be available online at the end of April. Working documents will be open to consultation, and those who have not yet been involved in the development process must be given the chance to have their say.
Despite the obvious faults in Scotland’s curriculum adventure, Bloomer remains resolute that “Scottish education is much the better for Curriculum for Excellence” – something that we will be well advised to remember when times (inevitably) get tough in Wales.
I was given my own, first-hand insight into the realities of curriculum design and development during a study visit to Scotland last year. There I spoke with teachers, student-teachers and teacher educators – and each had a different reason as to why Curriculum for Excellence had faltered.
One considered the pace of roll-out decisive, with school leaders given insufficient time to grapple with what was being asked of them. Despite there being six years between the publication of the curriculum’s founding document and its initial implementation in 2010, teachers were apparently underprepared for its arrival in schools.
Another contributing factor was said to be the new administrative demands on teachers. It was clear that forward-planning and lesson preparation was weighing heavy on some (ironically, the lack of ready-made resources was considered a huge drawback).
Perhaps hardest to swallow was the suggestion that teachers were not mentally geared for change. “Overcoming inertia is quite difficult,” said one expert in the field, who felt many had been "de-skilled and de-motivated" by years of prescription.
It served as a timely reminder that curriculum reform demands a lot of the teaching profession and will take a significant number out of their comfort zone.
One of the great benefits of having drawn so heavily upon the experience of Scotland is that we are not working in the dark, and there will be plenty of signposts to guide us along the way. The ongoing change process is daunting, yes – but it is not quite an adventure into the unknown.
It is important, therefore, that we do not dismiss out of hand anything with more negative connotations, regardless of how painful some of it may sound.
We cannot look to Scotland as some kind of panacea – our sister system will not have all the answers and the trick will be working out what of their experience is applicable to the Welsh context, and what is not.
And given that there are countless other countries plotting a similar curriculum course, we must continue to look far and wide for inspiration. We cannot, for want of a better phrase, put all of our eggs in one basket.
Gareth Evans is director of education policy at Yr Athrofa: Institute of Education, University of Wales Trinity Saint David. This is a version of a piece which originally appeared on his blog