Implementation in focus: How Wales is turning a 21st century curriculum into reality

Children in a school in the United Kingdom walking up a staircase to their classrooms

By Romane Viennet

Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Imagine a school education that would allow all children to develop into ethical, informed citizens; and ambitious, capable learners, ready to learn through their lives. These learners would also become enterprising and creative contributors in life and in work; as well as healthy, confident individuals living fulfilling lives in society.

Wales (United Kingdom) developed Curriculum for Wales, a new policy that aims to achieve these goals for its learners and bring its curriculum into the 21st century, modernising it so it can better meet current and future needs.

Wales now faces a crucial question: how can its ambitious curriculum policy be translated into a reality for schools and make a difference to students’ learning? As part of the OECD’s Implementing Education Policies activity, our team studied the early implementation of Curriculum for Wales and engaged with schools and stakeholders to help them find a response.

Adopting a school perspective to bring the vision to life

Curriculum for Wales represents an ambitious policy shift from previous curriculum policy, in terms of its philosophy and the role it gives schools and teachers. The new curriculum policy is expected to provide every child, including those with additional learning needs, with equal access to a broad and balanced education of high quality in all areas of learning. It aims to help children progress through learning processes that are holistic and interdisciplinary, and integrate knowledge, skills and experience. Curriculum for Wales also implies revisiting student assessment and promotes it as primarily a tool to support the progress of each learner.

One central innovation is the collaborative development of a common curriculum framework – a set of principles and building blocks that all schools’ curricula should share. Schools and local communities are expected to use the framework to design their own version of the curriculum to cater to their learners’ needs and interests. Recasting the role of teacher from one of deliverer to curriculum maker represents a daring approach not only for Wales, but internationally. The common framework aims to ensure some consistency in learning experiences across schools and to support teachers in their new role as curriculum makers.

As often with ambitious education policies, Wales has to be strategic to avoid a number of implementation challenges that might weaken its groundbreaking ambitions. Our OECD team raised a few such issues that need immediate attention as Wales progresses with implementation. For instance, giving more responsibilities to schools in making their own version of the curriculum requires clarity in the aims and key concepts of Curriculum for Wales, as well as professional time and continuous support for teachers. Clarity and careful support are paramount to ensuring that the flexibility allowed in curriculum making provides a broad range of learning experiences to all students, without risking inequalities between learners. Experience from other systems that have changed their curriculum before Wales show that other policies and educational practices such as student assessment, examination and system evaluation need to align with curriculum philosophy in order for learners and teachers to benefit from it.

Our team concluded that Wales should adopt a stronger school perspective: in other words, schools should be at the centre when planning and moving forward with implementation

Following our analysis, our team concluded that Wales should adopt a stronger school perspective: in other words, schools should be at the centre when planning and moving forward with implementation.  Adopting a school perspective can help Wales progress so that co-construction – continuous collaboration with stakeholders from across the system in policy making – is not only about making policy together, it is also about making it work together across the system. A school perspective can contribute to developing a shared understanding of what Curriculum for Wales looks like in classrooms, for instance informing the system on how to recognise that a learner is developing into a confident individual and a creative contributor. It can also guide education authorities and partners to ensure their support responds to schools’ needs. This perspective can finally help prioritise policies so they remain coherent and contribute to grounding the new curriculum in practice.

COVID-19 and curriculum reform: Using the new normal to move education forward

Curriculum for Wales is a curriculum policy developed for and by an education system that lives with its time. No more clearly did we see that than recently, when Wales (like the rest of the world) is grappling with how to handle business-as-usual when the times are anything but. The global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is forcing education to reinvent itself: Minister Kirsty Williams and her team spoke about how OECD support has helped Wales respond to the COVID context and gain confidence to continue with its transformational curriculum. Welsh stakeholders drew lessons from both OECD analysis and the new normal in education to inform the next steps of the curriculum. As a result, Wales updated its implementation strategy, to guide the common effort to support schools through the curriculum launch scheduled for September 2022 and get the education system ready in the meantime.

The pandemic brought additional challenges to education, yet also opened up opportunities to make it even more relevant to the needs of the 21st century. In Wales, for instance, although “going back to normal” might not be possible in all aspects of education, new practices emerged during the pandemic that could be used to facilitate the implementation of the new curriculum. The forced move to distance learning during lockdown, for example, allowed the Welsh Government to address the lack of access to connectivity and digital hardware in schools and for their students. Authorities are working to provide additional resources for more staff and support for schools in general. It is also an opportunity to emphasise the well-being dimension of the new curriculum.

As Wales progresses with its curriculum implementation, OECD countries and economies can benefit from its experience as they, too, seek continuous educational improvement for their youth.

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