25 January 2016
The education systems in England and Wales are diverging and the time is now right to talk about a vision for the system in Wales specifically, a vision based on a thorough analysis of the issues that the country faces.
Yet it is important to keep in mind that what unites us as school leaders in both countries is deeper than what divides us. Our leadership in all ways must be active, passionate, ethical and driven by our collective dedication and effort.
The Welsh picture
The Welsh Government has pursued distinctive education policies since devolution in 1999. These include:
a commitment to a school system that is maintained by local authorities
introduction of the Welsh Baccalaureate
making the Welsh language compulsory up to the age of 16
abolition of compulsory testing at the end of Key Stages 1–3
Since the appointment in June 2013 of Huw Lewis as Minister for Education and Skills, the policy focus has been on curriculum, qualifications and workforce reform. ASCL’s response to this changing policy context has been to work with the Cymru Executive to develop an overall vision for the education system – a blueprint for a self-improving system in Wales (see www.ascl.org.uk/cymrublueprint).
The blueprint was launched at the ASCL Cymru Annual Conference in November 2015 following a period of consultation with stakeholders in the Welsh system. Mr Lewis stated at the conference that he could not recall any professional association ever undertaking a piece of work that was so strategic in its thinking and with such potential for influencing policy.
The ASCL Cymru Blueprint has also been widely welcomed by Estyn (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate for Education and Training in Wales), the Welsh Education Workforce Council (EWC), Qualifications Wales, Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC) (the awarding body in Wales) and senior academics in five of the eight universities in Wales.
During the early years of this century Wales developed its own Welsh Baccalaureate, an over-arching qualification that focuses on the acquisition of skills alongside a range of academic qualifications. From September 2015, a new version of the Welsh Bacc is based on a skills challenge certificate, which will be graded, and supporting qualifications. The primary aim is to enable learners to develop and demonstrate an understanding of communication, numeracy, digital literacy, planning and organisation, creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem-solving, and personal effectiveness. The emphasis is on applied learning that provides opportunities for assessment in a range of real-life contexts.
The policy focus in England has been on the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) – a performance measure rather than an overarching qualification for any student who achieves good GCSE or accredited certificate passes in English, maths, history or geography, two sciences and a language. Qualification reform in England has focused on more academic rigour alongside terminal assessment. Grading in England will, of course, change to a numerical system over a period from 2017 to 2019.
As in England, huge weight has been placed on maths. In Wales, it has been divided into two examinations – numeracy and mathematical techniques. All the specifications for both GCSE and A level have been or are in the process of being redesigned with the first examinations for many subjects taking place in the summer of 2016. Wales has decided to keep the grading of GCSEs, that is, A*–C, and not move to a reversed numerical system.
Wales will also retain the coupling of AS and A2 examinations on the basis that it allows students to achieve a recognised qualification after one year and maintain the option to continue in all of their studies to A2 level, if appropriate.
A new series of performance measures has been announced for Wales. They include the removal of the old five A*–C measure, which is being replaced with the Welsh Baccalaureate at Key Stage 4, and an emphasis on a capped points score.
In England a new measure, Progress 8, will be implemented for all schools from 2016. Although currently under consultation, it is likely that an additional performance measure will be implemented in relation to the compulsory EBacc.
In both the Welsh and English contexts, the new performance measures mean that school leaders are having to rethink the time that is allocated to subjects at Key Stage 4 in particular. In Wales as in England, there is concern among school leaders about the weight and emphasis placed on specific subjects and worry about a corresponding narrowing of the curriculum. In Wales, the Welsh Bacc is now, in effect, compulsory for all students up to the end of Key Stage 4. We await the outcome of the government’s consultation on implementing the EBacc in England.
Curriculum reform in Wales is being led by Successful Futures, the report commissioned from Professor Graham Donaldson. Professor Donaldson recommends the removal of key stages and the introduction of four purposes of education.
Children and young people should develop as:
ambitious, capable learners, ready to learn throughout their lives
enterprising, creative contributors, ready to play a full part in life and work
ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world
healthy, confident individuals, ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society
A number of curriculum ‘pioneer’ schools have been identified to lead the development of curricula reform to deliver the outcomes identified in the Donaldson report. ASCL believes that England needs to define its own desired outcomes for the English education system. This could be expressed as the kind of knowledge, skills and character that society may expect in an educated 19-year-old. In the absence of such a framework in England, ASCL will shortly be starting work on developing one.
Building greater professional capital
The Welsh government commissioned Professor John Furlong to explore the future of initial teacher education (ITE) in Wales. The Furlong report, Teaching Tomorrow’s Teachers, recommended a range of initiatives that present some exciting opportunities for Welsh education. ASCL supports Professor Furlong’s proposal for schools to have a leading role in ITE as part of a whole-school approach to professional learning, working in close collaboration with university partners.
We have proposed in the Cymru Blueprint that the so-called ‘New Deal’ pioneer schools (the schools focusing on developing new approaches to ITE and professional learning) form professional learning alliances. In many ways, these are similar to England’s teaching school alliances.
There are stark differences between our two education systems – and undoubtedly education policy is diverging. But the issues for school leaders unite us: the leadership of large and complex reform programmes; accountability cultures that could potentially drive perverse behaviours if we are not clear about our moral purpose; the imperative to build professional capacity; and, above all, the creation of an equitable system in which all children achieve.
What is eminently clear in both the English and Welsh contexts is that deep and sustained reform of our education system will not come from outside the profession. It depends on the values and behaviours of educators. This is a clear premise of both the English and Welsh blueprints. We must use the changing policy context as an opportunity to move away from centralised prescription to a profession-led system that is evidence-informed, innovative and ethical.
Leora Cruddas is ASCL Director of Policy and Tim Pratt is ASCL Cymru Director
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