Forever keen to learn

10th September 2004 at 01:00
David Egan concludes his overview of the changes taking place this year in Welsh schools

The educational reforms that will begin to affect schools in Wales in the next year will leave an impression right through the system on early years, primary, secondary and post-16.

If Wales is truly to become "the learning country", these policies will need to work together to establish in young people a passion for lifelong learning.

In a powerful new book, Learning for Life: the Foundations of Lifelong Learning, David Hargreaves notes that by the time pupils reach the age of 16, about one-third of them have been turned off formal learning forever and take into their future a strong sense of failure.

Such a waste of human resources and capital is clearly unacceptable. He believes that this can only be changed through schooling that is more explicitly focused on the foundations for lifelong learning, with greater emphasis on learning itself and less on subjects and knowledge.

The foundation phase, the 14 to 19 proposals and the longer-term vision of the school curriculum suggested by ACCAC, the Welsh curriculum, qualifications and assessment agency, can all be seen to point in such a direction. But what may be lacking is an overall commitment to this being the driver for school education policy in Wales and a quickening of the pace to achieve such objectives.

All policies emanating from the Welsh Assembly government are founded on the basis of the highly successful comprehensive education system in Wales, eschewing the increasing specialisation and diversification being offered to parents in England. They are silent, however, on the way in which pupil ability is used to structure learning within our schools.

Work recently undertaken by teachers and educational researchers at Cambridge university has shown how powerful approaches to fixed ability can be in restricting the achievement of young people. Such approaches are commonplace in Welsh schools, where setting and streaming rather than mixed-ability teaching have become the norm.

This has been strongly influenced by the emphasis placed by the Westminster government on Sats results and the achievement of the "gold standard" of five A*-C GCSEs. While no one would wish to see the Assembly government, or anyone else, imposing pedagogical approaches upon schools, this is a fundamental issue that requires consideration if the ambitions of the new policies being introduced are to be realised.

In general, the approaches to learning that are adopted by teachers and schools are likely to prove vital to the success of Assembly policies, and this is something that the education and lifelong learning minister Jane Davidson has reflected upon eloquently in recent speeches.

Despite the work of the General Teaching Council for Wales and some of our strongest local education authority advisory services, we continue to suffer from a lack of strong professional networking between teachers which would facilitate the development and sharing of innovative approaches to learning.

Teachers must also be lifelong learners, and if we are to stem the flow of between one-third and a half of them leaving the profession within five years of their initial training, this may be one of the ways that it can be made more attractive.

Finally, if full value is to be gained from the exciting curriculum innovations that are being promoted, it will be essential to systematically research and evaluate their implementation.

The Assembly government is proud of its record as an "evidence-informed" institution, and it is indeed the case that all major new policies are evaluated. The rigorous examination of these fundamental changes would, however, require a much greater commitment to supporting educational research, undertaken by practitioners and academics, than is currently in place.

Thus the vision set out so cogently in The Learning Country in 2002 now begins to take shape. If it is to succeed and improve the lives and well-being of its people, other necessities may well exist. These include an articulated vision of the development of learning from early-years education through to lifelong learning, consideration of how inclusiveness can be promoted, the enhancement of teacher pedagogy and more robust educational research.

This would require extra resources or redistributing the existing pot. All involved should raise a strong and co-ordinated voice to the Assembly for the first option: a bigger pot.

The second possibility might lead to looking more searchingly at policies that can be seen to support schools in achieving the Assembly's visionary aims, as opposed to those that apply pressure upon the system to produce desired outcomes. That may yet be the hardest but most providential decision that needs to be taken during the coming year.

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

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Ysgrifennwch at: TES Cymru,Ty Sophia, 28 Heol yr Eglwys Gadeiriol, CaerdyddCF11 9LJ.Ebost: Ffacs 029 2066 0207

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