We have a long tradition, in the UK at least, of using Wales as a unit of measurement – a scale we can just about get our heads around to indicate the relative size of other places or masses[1] – for example “a huge iceberg, a quarter the size of Wales”[2].

But perhaps the time has come for us to use Wales as a yardstick for something else… good practice in educational reform.

To be the best, we must learn from the best

Wales has been undergoing a slow but meticulous process of educational reform since 2013, determined from the start to be outward looking and thorough. They began their journey by inviting the “globally acknowledged assessor of education system performance, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)”[3] to conduct a full review and offer recommendations based on their extensive experience and breadth of understanding of the systems across member countries. The recommendations of the review became the basis for a new roadmap for education – Qualified for Life: An Education Improvement Plan for 3-19 Year Olds, as well as a new curriculum – A Curriculum for Wales: A Curriculum for Life, both released in 2014.

And it didn’t end there – in 2016, the Welsh assembly invited the OECD back again for a Rapid Policy Assessment to evaluate their progress towards achieving the improvement plan that was the output of the initial visit, resulting in a revised action plan for 2017-2021: Education in Wales: Our National Mission. In the rapidly and perpetually changing economic, technological and cultural environment of the early 21st century, it is important to think of educational reform not as a journey with a fixed destination but as an iterative and ongoing process, so it is encouraging to see this willingness to evolve, adapt and improve.

In the 2016 action plan, Kirsty Williams, Cabinet Secretary for Education goes on to state that “it is our intention to invite the OECD to carry out further reviews at key points along our national education reform journey. Quite simply, to be the best we must learn from the best.”

A system of collaboration based on professional respect

What is perhaps most striking about Wales educational improvement journey is that it seems to recognise and value the views, attitudes and feelings of the teaching sector. The language employed in the official documents and in speeches by Kirsty Williams is inclusive, warm and aspirational. The number of times the word “shared” is used (as in shared mission, shared experience, shared long-term vision, shared optimism about the way forward) is testimony to the pervasive attitude of collaboration over proclamation.

Crucially, it is not just rhetoric. In the 2017 OECD Rapid Policy Assessment Report the inspectors recognised that the “Welsh reform journey is increasingly characterised by close working between the government and the education sector.”[4] One of the original recommendations of the OECD in 2014 was to “develop system leadership as a prime driver of education reform.”[5] In response, the government is establishing a new National Academy of Educational Leadership to “prepare all leaders in the Welsh education system with the right skills and knowledge to benefit pupils [and] make sure schools can deliver the new curriculum and vision for education.”[6]Indeed, the first two of four “enabling objectives” underpinning the reform are: “Developing a high-quality education profession” and “Inspirational leaders working collaboratively to raise standards.”[7]

The approach is one of raising standards, but also supporting leaders and teachers to achieve them.

While expectations have certainly been raised, and there are new professional leadership and teaching standards in place with strengthened initial teacher training provision, the ethos of reform seems to be very much about supporting leaders and teachers to achieve. In contrast to other jurisdictions, where local support and even national-level guidance is falling out of favour, replaced with clusters of innovation such as Multi-Academy Trusts, in Wales the mid-tier level of support is being bolstered, with the establishment of the Education Workforce Council and four regional consortia to support existing Local and Diocesan Authorities. Further, the National Mission proposes that the Welsh government must: “build a network of support around the education workforce and its learners by strengthening links with other public services, acknowledging the vital importance of mental and physical well-being for both learners and educators.”[8]

Fundamental review of the accountability system

Assessment as a tool for accountability is perhaps one of the most crucial areas of debate in education today. Accountability is certainly necessary, and it is essential that governments have a way of monitoring educational progress and achievement – if only so that they can see whether their educational policies are having the desired effect. And yet the criticism that too much statutory testing drives teachers and educational institutions to “teach to the test” rather than encouraging children to develop deeper learning skills and understanding remains hotly debated.

Thus, it is wonderful to see that there is political will in Wales to establish an accountability model that is: “fair; coherent; proportionate and transparent[9].” The National Mission promises that they will “work with key partners to develop flexible and responsive accountability models which hold schools to account and support children’s learning, without inhibiting innovation and effective sharing of good practice” while the fourth enabling objective is “Robust assessment, evaluation and accountability arrangements supporting a self-improving system”.

This is in keeping with a comment made by the CEO of Qualifications Wales, Philip Blake, at a recent Westminster Education Forum seminar that the curriculum in Wales has been restructured around what matters, which is the development of Wynne Harlen’s Big Ideas in Science. While Harlen’s Principles and big ideas of science education[10] is self-evidently about science, it is also predicated on a cross-disciplinary principle that what it is important to teach is not always easy to assess.

The journey isn’t finished for Wales yet, and it will be years before we fully see the effectiveness of the reforms they are undertaking (the new curriculum won’t even be finalised until 2020, and up and running in 2021), but the route it is taking is fascinating and potentially exemplary. For now, it remains for Wales to stay faithful to its vision – or in the words of the OECD – “Hold their nerve”.

References

[1] Size of Wales. The Economist June 11 2010 https://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2010/06/units_measurement

[2] Giant iceberg splits from Antarctic. BBC News 12 July 2017 ww.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-40321674

[3] Education in Wales: Our national mission. Action Plan 2017-2021 http://gov.wales/docs/dcells/publications/170926-education-in-wales-en.pdf

[4] The Welsh Education Reform Journey: A Rapid Policy Assessment http://www.oecd.org/education/The-Welsh-Education-Reform-Journey-FINAL.pdf

[5] Improving Schools in Wales: An OECD Perspective http://www.oecd.org/education/Improving-schools-in-Wales.pdf

[6] New National Academy for Educational Leadership announced http://gov.wales/newsroom/educationandskills/2016/new-national-academy-for-educational-leadership-announced/?lang=en

[7] Education in Wales: Our national mission. Action Plan 2017-2021 http://gov.wales/docs/dcells/publications/170926-education-in-wales-en.pdf

[8] Education in Wales: Our national mission. Action Plan 2017-2021 http://gov.wales/docs/dcells/publications/170926-education-in-wales-en.pdf

[9] Kirsty Williams responds to OECD review and commits to properly implementing vision for Education Reform http://learning.gov.wales/news/speeches/kirsty-williams-responds-to-oecd-review/?lang=en

[10] Principles and big ideas of science education, Edited by Wynne Harlen https://www.aaia.org.uk/content/uploads/2010/06/Big-ideas-pdf.pdf