A ‘quiet revolution’ in Welsh education

Teacher training reform offers big opportunities for Wales, says Claire Taylor

February 3, 2017

Wales is a proud nation that holds a passionately protectionist regard for its distinctive culture, history and language. Such self-determination has long been embodied within the person of Owain Glyndŵr, from whom my own university takes its name.

Glyndŵr was best known for instigating the Welsh Revolt against the rule of Henry IV of England, but his influence reached beyond the battlefield. Glyndŵr united Wales and dedicated his life to building an effective and prosperous European nation.

Today, a new revolution is under way in Wales. Some may say it is a quiet revolution, but nonetheless it is a revolution driven by passion, commitment and a belief that things should be better, mirroring the revolutionary ideals of Owain Glyndŵr back in the 15th century. This is a revolution that seeks to realise long-term benefits for individuals, for communities and for the nation as a whole. A revolution that is not about bloody battlefields, but about transforming educational opportunity for generations of learners across the compulsory and post-compulsory education sectors.

So, just what is this “quiet revolution”? For a long while in Wales, there has been a feeling that things could be better in terms of the quality of education. Welsh schools have long lagged behind other countries in relation to educational achievement, bluntly underlined in December 2016 when the latest PISA scores were released.

PISA (the Program for International Student Assessment), which measures 15-year-old students’ reading, mathematics and science literacy every three years, gives significant indicators of educational quality worldwide. The latest results for science, reading and maths showed that Welsh students were below the average of 72 countries and economies taking part in the study. To really rub salt in the wound, Welsh students did worse than their counterparts in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Inevitably, the results caused much consternation in both the Welsh government and the education sector generally.

So, what to do? Well, this is where our “quiet revolution” comes in, which is well under way within Wales but is perhaps not widely understood beyond our borders. 

Successful Futures, the Donaldson Review of Curriculum and Assessment Arrangements in Wales, was published in February 2015 and outlines a radical and revolutionary overhaul of not only what is taught in schools but also how it is organised and delivered. Donaldson’s vision for a new curriculum is an ambitious one, and is a key pillar of the strategy for turning around educational standards in Welsh schools.

However, many may say, “So what? You have a shiny new curriculum but who is going to deliver it?” And this is where the second pillar comes into play. Alongside a new school curriculum, Wales is also reforming initial teacher education (ITE).

Last year, John Furlong, ITE adviser to the Welsh Government, published his report: Teaching Tomorrow’s Teachers. The report is unequivocal in its assessment of existing provision – that current arrangements for training teachers (based in three centres involving five universities) appear to lack effectiveness and fall well short of what the international evidence suggests is best practice.

Furlong suggests there is a leadership vacuum in the sector resulting in poor communication and confused messages and also paints a picture of a systemic lack of support and development for education and ITE staff by universities. Even the scholarship of those involved in ITE has been put under question – in 2014, no single academic from any of the teacher education centres was returned for the research excellence framework.

Fundamentally though, the current ITE standards are a world away from that imagined in the Donaldson Review, and this is where the two pillars for education reform join up. Donaldson’s vision is for teachers as active, reflective professionals who take responsibility for key aspects of curriculum design, implementation and assessment. By moving away from the national curriculum, there is the potential to create a culture of learning and development where teaching professionals can work more creatively and be more responsive to individual learner needs and circumstances. Therefore, the Donaldson Review necessitates a fundamental re-conceptualisation of teaching standards in Wales, which in turn implies a radical rethink of how teachers are trained and supported throughout their careers.

This perfect storm of a dual approach (some may even say a disruptively innovative approach) to tackling reform, both in relation to the school curriculum and also ITE, presents a unique opportunity for Wales to develop a truly world-leading education system.

Schools and universities are on board and recognise that change really is needed – indeed among my own university’s partner schools there is a sense of excitement and expectation at just what could be achieved for a new generation of learners if we get this right.

Wales is responding to a serious charge of educational neglect, and significant work has already been done to identify the change needed and get it under way in order to develop a world-class education system for the nation. This revolution may seem quiet to those on the outside looking in, but it is no less radical, passionate or ambitious than that led by the visionary Owain Glyndŵr more than 600 years ago.

Claire Taylor is deputy vice-chancellor at Wrexham Glyndŵr University.

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