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Owen Hathway - The curriculum review challenge


Owen Hathaway1

The Donaldson Review published earlier this year will undoubtedly lead to a complete overhaul in the delivery of education in Wales. It has put us on a path for change that will radically alter the way teachers both think about and deliver education.

Teachers have been clamouring, calling and desperate for a greater sense of freedom to shape the curriculum to suit the needs and strengths of their local communities and pupil profiles. Being empowered to act on that flexibility is a challenge all teachers should welcome.

However, it is also clearly something that teachers are simply not accustomed to, and in many cases will not feel comfortable with, at least in the initial stages. The challenges are both frightening and exciting in equal measure. We will seriously have to consider the question of capacity within the system to meet the demands of this curriculum revolution.

Teachers have become accustomed to a package and push approach from the Welsh Government and local authorities and may be waiting, wrongly, to receive the next curriculum update from that central source.

It is not too strong a statement, in my opinion, to say that the top down approach to curriculum design we have seen in recent years has somewhat de-professionalised teachers in this aspect of education planning, and has restricted independent and critical thinking around the curriculum. We now seem to be moving back towards releasing the shackles but we mustn’t expect the sector to run before it has been allowed to properly walk independently again. Teachers will almost have to relearn the skills of curriculum design, which is going to be a burden on professional development and workload.


In the early stages it is important that teachers and schools are given the time, space and support to meet this challenge. The last thing we want is to find the pressure to tackle this process too quickly leads to “off the shelf” solutions that drain both the creative opportunities and finances from schools.

The Education Minister has been bold in making public pronouncements about his wish to see the teaching profession lead the work of designing the future curriculum in Wales. That is to be welcomed. A sense of working in partnership with the Welsh Government, rather than clashing with it is one the education sector desperately needs on such an important topic.

It has also been really positive to hear the Welsh Government be far more realistic about timescales than perhaps they have been on other issues in the past.

It was heartening to hear the Education Minister tell ITV Wales News that;

“It will take the time that it takes in order to do this carefully and with the proper support for the professionals particularly that we are leaning on so heavily here.“ – Huw Lewis AM, ITV News, February 25th

Not only will we have to see a significant investment, financially and in time, to build the right skills for curriculum design and planning amongst existing practitioners, we will also have to reimagine the way teachers are trained. Something the Furlong report has already taken steps to put in place.

Digital Literacy

Within the recommendations there is the specific challenge of promoting the role of IT. Digital literacy is a key component of these curriculum reforms. The report essentially puts digital competency including computer programming and coding on a par with literacy and numeracy as priorities that should be considered within all lessons, across all subject matters.

While education should not simply be about fulfilling the requirements of economic drivers, and indeed the curriculum review is quite explicit about that, we of course need to accept that becoming IT literate is a reality of modern life.

The impression that has come across thus far, to me at least, is that the patience we’ve seen for building curriculum capacity is maybe that bit thinner when it comes to digital inclusion. This is something the Minister wants to see put in place a lot sooner.

The reality is that we need to support the upskilling of the profession if we are to ensure that all teachers are confident and creative in utilising modern technology in order to design the best learning experiences for their classes. Children, who have only known a world of iPads, iPhones and Facebook, are more fluent than some teachers who were born, and in some cases already teaching, before the internet was even invented. I’m 32 but while I got my first mobile phone at the age of 19 by the time my son was 20 months old he was seamlessly navigating YouTube.

There should be, yet again, a significant investment in continued professional development in this field, as well as in hardware and other resources to ensure schools actually have the quantity and quality of technology needed to be able to realise the ambition.

Assessment and accountability

A further major challenge to implementation is the proposed change to assessment and accountability. While the review is focused on curriculum design 22 of the 68 recommendations relate specifically to these issues.

There is a particular challenge here for local authorities, regional consortia and Estyn in squaring the circle of the current system of high-tariff, punitive accountability measures, (many of which are irrelevant to securing progress for the individual learner), and a system that must move towards utilising assessment for learning in a more subtle and relevant way.


The truth is that what the profession is being asked to take on is a massive undertaking. It will take a significant change in thinking and approach. It will take a clear commitment to quality continued professional development. It will take a recognition that it cannot be realised with budgets constantly cut. It cannot be designed overnight and it needs a patience that goes beyond the usual election cycle.

However, what the profession is also getting is a real opportunity. Learners’ achievement and school development based on an innovative and flexible curriculum, matter to no one as much as they do to teachers and school leaders. Here is a chance for them to reclaim ownership for what we all know should already be theirs.

Owen Hathway is the Wales Policy Officer at the National Union of Teachers. A frequent media contributor to the education debate in Wales, Owen took up the post in August 2011 having previously worked in a variety of communication and research roles for Plaid Cymru – The party of Wales. This included the role of Head of Communications for the party at the National Assembly for Wales. A graduate of the Aberystwyth University politics department, Owen has also studied towards qualifications with the London School of Journalism; the Chartered Institute of Marketing, where he is a Chartered Marketer; The Chartered Management Institute and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Owen is particularly interested in the impact of community co-operation in educational attainment, and how empowering the education profession can be the lead driver in economic and social performance.