Successful Futures: Where do the arts sit in the proposed educational reform for Wales?

Earlyarts Director, Ruth Churchill Dower, gives us her thoughts on the proposed (and actually quite radical) improvements to the Welsh curriculum.

When I sat down to read the Review of the Curriculum and Assessment framework for Wales by Professor Graham Donaldson, I had expected a lengthy, chewy, dense document that might need a few re-reads in order to make sense of how all the elements connected up. I could not have been more wrong.

Donaldson starts with a clear rationalisation of the challenges and opportunities within the current curriculum that shows the depth of listening to teachers that has taken place to get to this stage. Throughout the entire set of proposals, he reflects a deep understanding of pedagogical and structural principles from across the world that made the entire review a very interesting, well connected and almost quite enjoyable read. And its rare to hear me say that about curriculum and assessment frameworks! Here are some of my thoughts on the proposals.

One of the most radical changes proposed is to incorporate the Foundation Phase into the national curriculum, so that it becomes a framework for 3-16 years. The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence is designed on this basis and has been very successful in terms of addressing transition issues (for both teachers and students), and enabling creative, play-based and emergent learning approaches to continue well into KS2. So it came as no surprise to find that Prof Donaldson had also been heavily involved in the design of this. The fact that the review is also influenced by the Cambridge Primary Review Trust is to be welcomed, as this was a very solid piece of research that was pretty much brushed under the carpet in the 2010 change of government in England.

Another radical proposal, showing lessons learned from the successes in Foundation Phase teaching, is the new focus on ‘Areas of Learning and Experience’ from 3 – 16 (rather than subjects) which reinforces everything we know about the importance of rich, varied and high quality experiences on brain and body development from birth to early adulthood. In fact, the review proposes six Areas of Learning and Experience, which are:

Expressive arts • Health and well-being • Humanities • Languages, literacy and communication • Mathematics and numeracy • Science and technology

Donaldson’s report is, overall, good news in that it proposes to keep the arts in the curriculum as one of six Areas of Learning and Experience, although the rationale for this is weak and open to criticism of the arts simply supporting the ‘softer skills’ of life. The lack of detailed understanding of the roles of visual arts, construction or crafts in the arts area is slightly concerning, although the definition of the Expressive Arts area includes ‘art’, and the definition of the Science and Technology area includes 'crafts and design' (a hang-over from D&T days maybe). However, the increased recognition of languages (plural), science and technologies throughout the curriculum is brilliant.

The terminology for the proposed ‘Expressive Arts’ initially might suggest a move towards more of a subject-oriented framework in the early years as well, with a focus on school readiness in the early stage outcomes, but that is not then reflected in the rhetoric which is clearly pedagogically led.

Languages, Literacy and Communication are combined into one Area of Learning and Experience here, which is great as they are so deeply connected. Whilst it’s absolutely right to focus on developing the individual skills imbued within each sub-area, it’s much harder to assess them independently of each other, especially in the older years.

What is interesting is that Physical Development / Physical Education is not specified as an Area of Learning and Experience. Such a fundamental part of every young child’s development. And yet, just as with creativity, this is something that runs right through every area of learning and applies to all the proposed six areas. Hopefully, in the early years at least, Physical Development will still be assessed within every area across the whole curriculum especially early on when physical gaps can be spotted and corrected more easily.

Anyone who is worried that the new title ‘Expressive Arts’ might lead towards an over-focus on the technical arts skills rather than an aptitude for creative thinking, exploring, analysing, and problem solving, will be reassured by the inclusion in the curriculum of four ‘wider skills that recognise how children learn and develop’, comprising;

critical thinking and problem solving – marshalling critical and logical processes to analyse and understand situations and develop responses and solutions • planning and organising – implementing solutions and executing ideas and monitoring and reflecting on results • creativity and innovation – generating ideas, openness and courage to explore ideas and express opinions • personal effectiveness – reflecting on and understanding oneself and others, behaving in effective and appropriate ways; being an effective learner.

The Review proposes that the four wider skills should be embedded within each Area of Learning and Experience to reduce complexity and replication within the curriculum. This means that teachers will be expected to devise suitable learning, teaching and assessment activities that reflect these wider skills.

We know from the EYFS Profile results before the revised EYFS was published that, in many cases, early years teachers felt unconfident in knowing how to spot progress in ‘creative development’ particularly. The scores therefore did not necessarily reflect the actual progression made. Therefore, I would hope that some well-researched, user-friendly guidance will be offered to teachers on constructing their learning, teaching and assessment activities for this wider skill in particular.

What’s really interesting is the move towards restructuring learning so that assessment takes into account the different stages of progression, rather than what is an expected learning outcome for each age group. This will have massive implications for how assessments are undertaken and will, hopefully, enable a much greater emphasis on collaborative observation and reflection across primary and secondary as well. Donaldson addresses this later in the review, saying that assessment must be aligned ‘with the purposes of learning: assess what matters.’

Most importantly though is that this broader learning approach is much more inclusive of all children’s needs and strengths, with the emphasis on celebrating achievement for all children at all stages rather than inadvertently promoting competition between children on uneven playing fields.

‘Phases and key stages should be removed in order to improve progression, and [] should be based on a well-grounded, nationally described continuum of learning that flows from when a child enters education through to the end of statutory schooling at 16 and beyond.'

'Learning will be less fragmented... and progression should be signalled through Progression Steps, rather than levels. Progression Steps will be described at five points in the learning continuum, relating broadly to expectations at ages 5, 8, 11, 14 and 16…. Each Progression Step should be viewed as a staging post for the educational development of every child, not a judgement.’

I love the sentiments in this section and hope it will give rise to a greater trust in professionals’ own judgement. However, I wonder how easy this will be to implement within a diversely-trained, and under-resourced workforce.

Especially in the early years, practitioners will need to learn a whole new approach to using their observations and reflections to help progress learning at a deeper level, based more on professional judgement rather than observed outcomes. The potential for this to really challenge and value the professionalism of the staff is huge:

‘The Areas of Learning and Experience should not be seen as watertight compartments but rather a means of organising the intentions for each child and young person’s learning, with decisions and plans for how these should translate into day-to-day activities taking place creatively at school level. They are therefore not timetabling devices.’

I was very happy to see a whole section on understanding Pedagogy and how this should impact on teaching strategies, which I think is one of the strengths of early years work that can be better used further up the curriculum.

‘The elements of good teaching include in various ways: subject and methodological expertise; sound classroom craft skills; an understanding of the social and psychological factors that influence learning; and the ability to excite and inspire children to want to learn and to be able to learn independently…'

'The proposed Progression Steps should set expectations that challenge children and young people to have high personal aspirations and achievement. Teaching should proceed on optimistic assumptions about its ability to make a difference in ways that will encourage such high aspirations in all learners… the skill of the good teacher lies in establishing in children and young people the more intrinsic satisfaction that comes from making the effort to address and succeed with challenging tasks.’

Donaldson takes the common elements of successful teaching and learning approaches around the world and sets them out in a set of principles that really ought to underpin the delivery of every curriculum in the world:

Good teaching and learning…

1. maintains a consistent focus on the overall purposes of the curriculum 2. challenges all learners by encouraging them to recognise the importance of sustained effort in meeting expectations that are high but achievable for them 3. means employing a blend of approaches including direct teaching 4. means employing a blend of approaches including those that promote problem solving, creative and critical thinking 5. sets tasks and selects resources that build on previous knowledge and experience and engage interest 6. creates authentic contexts for learning 7. means employing assessment for learning principles 8. ranges within and across Areas of Learning and Experience 9. regularly reinforces Cross-curriculum Responsibilities, including literacy, numeracy and digital competence, and provides opportunities to practise them 10. encourages children and young people to take increasing responsibility for their own learning 11. supports social and emotional development and positive relationships 12. encourages collaboration

The Donaldson Review is, without a doubt, one of the most clear, comprehensive, inclusive and meaningful curriculum reviews I have seen. As well as focusing on enabling a broad and balanced curriculum to be achieved, it also seeks to find ways to reduce teacher workload and stress, and increase competence, consistency and connectivity across all areas.

It cannot hope to be implemented successfully without significant improvements in teacher and practitioner training, especially in stimulating deeper level learning, making assessments and knowing what clear progression in learning looks like (especially in the early years). However, I hope the review of teacher education currently being undertaken by Professor John Furlong comes fast on the heels of the review and can be integrated easily and consistently.

Ruth Churchill Dower is the Director of Earlyarts

All Photos by Earlyarts Associate Trainer, Ammie Flexen