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Implementing the New Curriculum in Wales

Lara Stace
Lara Stace

The new Curriculum for Wales will be the biggest shake up in the Welsh education system for over 30 years and represents a significant step change from a prescribed, assessment-led curriculum to a broader, skills- and knowledge-focused curriculum. The discussion about assessment of the new curriculum is ongoing, but it is looking to set children and young people up with the skills and knowledge required for employment, lifelong learning, active citizenship and to be healthy and confident.

The changes will begin to be introduced from September 2022. However, in recognition of the increased pressure on schools during the pandemic and the impact this has had on their curriculum preparedness, the Education Minister, Jeremy Miles MS, announced in July that secondary schools will have the option to either introduce the new curriculum to Year 7 pupils from September 2022 – alongside primary schools – or implement the changes from September 2023 with both Year 7 and 8 pupils.

Qualifications Wales, the regulator for awarding bodies in Wales, is currently reviewing the responses to its consultation on the qualifications that will support the new curriculum. It will report in the autumn, and once a decision is made about which GCSE subjects are needed, Qualifications Wales will then consult on the content and assessment of these subjects. With the first Year 7 pupils studying the new curriculum from September 2022, they will reach Year 10 in September 2025 and finish Year 11 in 2027. Qualifications Wales plans to consult on and develop the new qualifications between 2021 and 2024, with schools then able to offer this cohort support when they decide which qualifications to study from Year 10.

On the face of it, the new curriculum has major plans for Wales’ education system to fulfil its four key aims, producing: ambitious and capable learners; healthy and confident individuals; enterprising and creative contributors; and ethical, informed citizens. These four purposes are the starting point for schools designing their curriculums, alongside the six areas of ‘learning and experience’ the new curriculum requires: expressive arts; health and wellbeing; humanities; languages, literacy and communication; mathematics and numeracy; and, science and technology.

Within these areas, English, relationships and sexuality education (RSE), religion, values and ethics, and Welsh are mandatory elements. Relationships and sexuality education drew significant attention during the drafting of the legislation, particularly when Welsh Government announced that parents would not be able to withdraw pupils from the lessons. Considered a major step away from parents’ rights, to those of the child, parents’ feared were allayed by assurances that RSE lessons would be kept ‘age appropriate’ – for example, focusing on family relationships.

With regards to the humanities, Plaid Cymru voted against the Bill because Welsh history was not included on the face of it – which, Plaid Senedd Members suggested at the time, did not mark it as a priority. Although the party supported the direction of the Bill, it was concerned that it would not mandate the teaching of the full spectrum of Welsh history, encompassing the stories of those from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic and LGBTQ+ communities, and environmental education.

In response, then Education Minister Kirsty Williams MS said that Welsh history would be mandated within the ‘What Matters’ statements, even though it did not appear on the face of the Bill – although Plaid education and Welsh language spokesperson, Sian Gwenllian MS, criticised the guidance, saying it can be more easily scrapped than statutory issues included within the legislation. The face of the Bill became an ongoing debate about priority throughout its passage through the Senedd, with two petitions also calling for the compulsory teaching of Black and POC UK histories in the curriculum and the introduction of anti-racist teaching materials in schools. If the former had been placed on the face of the Bill, it would have showed clear direction from Welsh Government – and commitment to address Wales’ own past and present on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic rights and experiences.

At Stage 4 in the Senedd – the step before it receives Royal Assent and becomes law – the Bill passed with 32 votes in favour and 18 against, with one abstention. The vote record tells the story of opinions on the new curriculum (and the effectiveness of the Whip). All Welsh Labour Senedd Members voted in favour, alongside some notable Welsh Conservative members – Laura Anne Jones MS, then a member of the Children, Young People and Education Committee and now Shadow Minister for Education, and former Senedd Members Nick Ramsay and David Melding. Welsh Conservative support stopped there, with the rest of the group either voting against or abstaining altogether.

Of course Suzy Davies, at the time the Welsh Conservatives’ education spokesperson, won some significant gains for the curriculum as it passed through scrutiny stages. She was heavily involved in ensuring the teaching of menstrual wellbeing within the curriculum, and tabled the amendment that saw lifesaving skills and first aid added as a requirement under the new curriculum. The Welsh Conservative group is offered a free vote on matters of conscience, and the decision by Welsh Government remove parents’ rights to withdraw their child from RSE played a role in the opposition from four of the group’s then 11 Senedd Members.

The against slate appeared a mixed bunch, with different political groupings opposing the legislation on different grounds. Plaid Cymru, as mentioned, all voted against the Bill, but they were joined by the remaining Welsh Conservative Senedd Members and former members of various Right-leaning groups such as Abolish – Mark Reckless, Caroline Jones, Neil Hamilton, Mandy Jones, Neil McEvoy and Gareth Bennett. On the Welsh Conservative benches, Russell George MS, Paul Davies MS, Darren Millar MS and Janet Finch-Saunders MS all voted against the Bill.

Gareth Bennett, speaking on behalf of the short-lived Abolish the Assembly Party, opposed the Bill on the grounds that it would lead to more divergence from the curriculum in England and in turn making it more difficult to compare between students in the two nations. Developments on Welsh language immersion were described as a “sinister development”, with the party disagreeing with the (continued) policy of compulsory Welsh up to age 16 – saying, instead, it should be a matter of choice.

Returning to the guidance, the Humanities What Matters statements contain ‘human societies are complex, and shaped by human actions and beliefs.’ It cites the appreciation of identity, heritage and cynefin, a word which signifies the multiple factors in our environment and experience that influence us in ways we can never understand. It is within this area of the new curriculum that teaching about the stories of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people is mandated. References to diverse cultures and histories are limited to the statements for expressive arts and humanities, and although welcome, may not fully resolve those concerns about how the experiences and histories of Black, Asian and minority ethnic people will be reflected across the breadth of the new curriculum.

For a bird's eye view.
Am olwg oddi uchod.

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