Slow revolution dawns

David Egan

In the first of a two-part series, David Egan looks at dramatic changes taking place in the school curriculum across Wales

As a new school year begins in Wales, three to seven-year-olds in the Little Dragon's Playgroup in Anglesey, the Cylch Meithrin in Ffairfach, Carmarthenshire and the Poppies Day Nursery in Torfaen, will join 38 other schools and early-years settings across Wales in piloting the new foundation phase curriculum.

Along with teenagers involved in the extended Welsh baccalaureate pilots for 16 to 19-year-olds, they are the first participants in a learning revolution in Wales.

The 20045 school year will also see consultation on ACCAC's (the Welsh curriculum, qualifications and assessment agency) proposals for changes to the school curriculum, the establishing of networks in every local authority area to begin planning future provision for 14 to 19-year-olds as part of the learning pathways development, and the start of a process whereby statutory testing of 11 and 14-year-olds will be ended.

Over the next five years, Wales will increasingly move to what may be its own distinctive and innovative model of the school curriculum. The death knell of the national curriculum of 1988, conceived in Whitehall and adopted in most respects in Wales, promises to be sounded loudly. But what do these initiatives involve?

The foundation phase curriculum is the result of work first initiated by the Welsh Assembly's education committee. It has drawn upon good practice from around the world and been strongly influenced by educational research that shows this to be the most providential age for learning.

The curriculum for three to seven-year-olds emphasises the importance of learning through structured play, active involvement, interaction with peers and adults and solving real-life problems. The subject and content-driven focus of the national curriculum, that was always so alien to early-years teachers, is replaced by a concentration on the development of seven groups of skills: personal and social development and well-being; language, literacy and communication; mathematical development; bilingualism and multi-cultural understanding; knowledge and understanding of the world; physical development; and creative development.

Much of the same type of underpinnings can be seen in the learning pathways proposals for 14 to 19-year-olds. While they maintain the need for students to maintain a core to their learning, this is conceived more widely to include real-world skills, attitudes, values, work, community and sportingcreative experiences as well as the knowledge and understanding that tends to dominate the present subject-driven curriculum.

These proposals can also be seen to respond to the growing feelings of schools and colleges that the current 14-19 curriculum is not appropriate to most young people in this age group.

This contributes to disengagement, exclusion and social problems associated with crime, anti-social behaviour and drugs cultures.

Through the involvement of all potential providers of training and education in Wales, the aim of learning pathways is to increase choice, guidance, motivation and achievement by all learners. The challenge of developing the policy will no doubt be immense, but its vision is probably one of the most exciting that has ever been produced for education in Wales.

ACCAC's review of the curriculum and assessment arrangements reflects the necessity to integrate these developments and to also consider the needs of the 7-14 age group.

While recognising that the national curriculum has achieved a great deal, it points to the need to move to one that is "more inclusive, and better prepares young people for life and work, as well as for further eduaction and training, through being appropriately learner-centred and skills focused".

It invites the Welsh Assembly government to consider a radically revised curriculum as a long-term goal. In the meantime, and in readiness for September 2008, it suggests that the curriculum be revised to make it more learner-centred and skills-focused.

Such an incremental approach has much to commend it and is likely to meet with the approval of teachers, if they can be won over to the underpinning philosophy.

Perhaps, however, it is the educational philosophy driving these reforms that requires closer examination. Do the proposals provide the firm foundations that we require to establish lifelong learning for Wales? Are they the best we can offer to encourage young people to learn? Or are they a refined version of a traditional approach to the curriculum that reflects what teachers and the state education system think serves their best interest?

These are probably the fundamental litmus tests to be applied here. They will be examined further next week.

David Egan is professor of education in the school of education at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff

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David Egan

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