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Graham Donaldson - Successful Futures

21st April 2015 - Professor Graham Donaldson writes about his review of national curriculum and assessment arrangements in Wales – 'Successful Futures'

Professor Donaldson photo'Just over a year ago, Huw Lewis AM, Minister for Education and Skills, invited me to undertake an independent and fundamental review of national curriculum and assessment arrangements in Wales. As many of you will know, the outcome of that Review - my report Successful Futures - was published on 25 February. Its recommendations will have fundamental and far-reaching implications for all of those engaged in education and, in particular, for the future success and wellbeing of the children and young people of Wales.

In undertaking the Review, I was absolutely determined that my recommendations for change would reflect the views and aspirations of the people of Wales as well as the best of emerging international thinking and practice. My team and I visited around 60 schools across the country, including Welsh- and English-medium nursery, primary and secondary schools, special schools, pupil referral units, a young offenders' institution and work-based learning settings. We received over 700 responses (more than 300 of which were from children and young people themselves) to our call for evidence. We also engaged with a broad range of interested individuals and organisations across Wales.

The messages from this engagement were remarkably consistent and shaped the Review's conclusions and recommendations. Important existing strengths were identified, including the commitment to equity and inclusion, the Foundation Phase and the importance attached to the Welsh culture and language as well as many example of outstanding local practice. However, the evidence also pointed to a compelling need for fundamental change. Successive reforms of a curriculum dating back to 1988 had led to arrangements that were overloaded, too prescriptive, unnecessarily complex and struggling to remain relevant. Assessment and accountability had become unhelpfully intertwined in ways that weakened the power of both to serve children's learning.

The excellent practice that undoubtedly exists across Wales often seemed to be happening despite and not because of the curriculum. There was a clear appetite for fundamental change so as to create the conditions for schools and practitioners to focus more directly on teaching and learning and to prepare children and young people in Wales to thrive and be successful in a rapidly changing world. The Review therefore also considered the extent to which the curriculum was well placed to meet the needs and pressures arising from far-reaching changes in society and the economy. The world of 1988 is very different from that of today, let alone tomorrow. Changes in how we live and work increasingly demand the capacity to learn throughout life and to connect and apply that learning creatively in unpredictable real-life situations.

'Successful Futures' makes a total of 68 recommendations – all of which are designed to promote better learning and higher standards.

The evidence pointed, with remarkable consistency, towards the outcomes people wanted for their children and young people. The Review was therefore able to develop 4 curriculum purposes designed to reflect these aspirations in ways that seek to encapsulate a vision of the well-educated learner completing their statutory education.

The four curriculum purposes are outlined and elaborated in the report. They are that all our children and young people will be:

  • ambitious, capable learners, ready to learn throughout their lives
  • enterprising, creative contributors, ready to play a full part in life and work
  • ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world
  • healthy, confident individuals, ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society.

The next task for the Review was to identify a structure for the new curriculum that would complement and underpin these purposes. The structure should promote progression in learning, establishing sound foundations and signalling the need for connections amongst and application of what has been learned. With this in mind, I have recommended that the structure of the curriculum should be based on six Areas of Learning and Experience as organisers for the entire age range from 3 to 16. The proposed Areas of Learning and Experience are:

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


The Review also proposes that literacy, numeracy and digital competence should be the responsibility of all teachers. The case for literacy and numeracy has already been made. The argument for treating 'digital competence' in a similar way has become increasingly compelling as the digital world becomes intertwined with the ways in which we live, work and socialise. Being digitally competent is not an option but a necessity for the twenty-first century learner.

It is also my view that the entire period of statutory schooling (at least) should be seen as one coherent and progressive whole. The current structure of phases and key stages has over time become disjointed and created unnecessary additional points of transition. I am therefore proposing a stronger focus on depth and progression in learning through the creation of Progression Steps, spaced at three-yearly intervals, within each Area of Learning and Experience.

The Review recommends that all children and young people should continue to learn the Welsh language to the age of 16 but with a greater focus on children and young people's ability to communicate confidently in everyday settings in the Welsh language, including the workplace. Welsh-medium schools should act as hubs for the Welsh language, providing support for teachers and other practitioners in English-medium schools.

Current assessment arrangements were widely criticised during the review as being confused, over-elaborate and heavily influenced by the demands of accountability. I am therefore recommending a simplified approach to assessment that seeks to strengthen teacher assessment as part of arrangements that reassert its prime role in supporting progression in learning.

My recommendations have major implications for the professional development of teachers and other practitioners. The Welsh Government's New Deal for the Education Workforce and the recommendations in Professor John Furlong's report on teacher training are well timed to address many of these issues. In addition, there will also be a need for more immediate action to build the confidence and capacity of teachers and school leaders in taking forward the Review's recommendations.

My proposals reaffirm the importance of accountability but the mechanisms employed should make a constructive contribution to children and young people's learning and promote a focus on the curriculum purposes as the agreed goals of that learning. In particular, we must guard against the distortions that can arise if the purposes of assessment and accountability become confused.

Taken as a whole, the recommendations in my report are designed to promote successful futures for all of the children and young people of Wales. They set an ambitious, rigorous and challenging agenda. From all I have seen and all whom I have had the privilege to meet, I have no doubt that you are well placed to realise these high aspirations.

As a signal of his commitment to this new way of working, the Minister recently launched the Great Debate on the vision for the future of education in schools contained in my report. I would urge you, your colleagues, your pupils, your parents and others to continue your involvement in the Review by engaging in this debate, and by responding to the questionnaire on my report. These responses will inform the Welsh Government's formal response to the report which will be published in the summer – so it is important that you participate!

Web link to Great debate: 

Graham Donaldson
April 2015

Graham was a secondary school teacher in Scotland before becoming a curriculum evaluator for the Scottish national curriculum body.

In 1983, he joined Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education (HMIE). As head of the organisation, he guided it through major structural reform as it became an executive agency of the Scottish Government.

He also radically reformed the approach to inspection, combining accountability with self-evaluation and capacity building. In addition to being the chief professional advisor to Ministers on education policy, Graham personally took a leading role in a number of major reform programmes and was influential in the Scottish Government's curriculum reform programme, Curriculum for Excellence.

Following his retirement from HMIE he was asked by the government to undertake a personal review of teacher education in Scotland. His report 'Teaching Scotland's Future' published in 2011, made 50 recommendations which have all been accepted by the government and a major implementation programme is now under way. The report has also aroused considerable interest internationally.

Graham is a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh Education Committee and a Director of the Goodison Group in Scotland. He has established a significant international profile by lecturing extensively, working as an international expert for OECD, advising governments and non-government organisations and leading the international inspectorate organisation as President.

He is currently working at Glasgow University where he is an Honorary Professor in the College of Social Sciences.

Graham was appointed by Her Majesty the Queen as a Companion of the Order of the Bath in 2010.