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Curriculum reform

This was a difficult period for providers as they continued to face the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic at the same time as attempting to maintain their momentum in developing teaching and learning to align with the Curriculum for Wales. The impact of the pandemic, as well as the effectiveness of providers’ capacity to secure change and improvement, meant that progress was variable. For example, COVID-19 restrictions limited opportunities for practitioners to identify and share effective pedagogy within and between providers. Despite the challenges, in many cases, leaders worked with staff to find innovative ways to continue collaborative work to develop the curriculum and pedagogy. In the primary sector, experience of learning phase pedagogy and a more established approach to applying skills across the curriculum supported teachers to begin to adapt their pedagogy, for example delivering more authentic learning experiences for pupils.

In the secondary schools that were making suitable progress towards curriculum reform, they focused closely on improving teaching, developing staff understanding of curriculum design and progression in learning. They also considered their approaches to transition between primary and secondary carefully. In these cases, schools used their transition arrangements to support pupil progress as well as helping pupils to settle into school life. In the secondary schools where progress towards curriculum reform was least effective, they started to design their curriculum too quickly without thinking carefully about improving teaching or considering the knowledge, skills and experiences their pupils need to succeed. In addition, schools indicated that the demands of subject specific qualifications made it difficult for them to consider their approaches to curriculum design and delivery.

Vocational qualifications reform

In the post-16 sector, Qualifications Wales continued to progress a series of occupational sector reviews as part of its vocational qualifications policy linked to the reform of vocational qualifications in Wales. New ‘made for Wales’ qualifications in health and social care, childcare, construction and building services were developed as a result of this work. Although leaders in schools, colleges and work-based learning providers were generally positive about the development of these new Wales specific vocational qualifications, many expressed frustration with early issues regarding the design and implementation of these qualifications. This resulted in reviews and amendments to these qualifications. The future of many existing qualifications, such as BTECs, was uncertain due to planned funding changes in England linked to the introduction of vocational technical qualifications (T-levels) and withdrawal of funding for many existing qualifications. The impact on the 16-19 curriculum in Wales was uncertain as awarding organisations were yet to publish their plans to continue offering qualifications affected by these changes to providers in Wales. Post-16 providers in Wales were especially worried about the likely impact of these reforms on the availability of vocational qualifications. In March 2022, the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language announced that they would review the current offer of vocational qualifications in Wales and use the findings to bring forward reforms.

Improving teaching

Across all sectors that were preparing to implement the Curriculum for Wales, practitioners appropriately considered and explored approaches to teaching to support curriculum implementation and improve their practice. In a minority of non-maintained settings, there was a notable shift towards more child-led approaches, much of this supported by the publication of the curriculum for funded non-maintained nursery settings. In these settings, this often led to practitioners planning learning experiences that followed the children’s interests, whilst still building their knowledge, understanding and skills progressively. This was also the case in many primary schools, where teachers increasingly devised ways to engage pupils in planning what and how they learned. However, the effectiveness of these approaches was variable. 

In the secondary sector, teachers began to consider ways to develop their approaches towards teaching to maximise benefits for pupils’ learning. Where this was most successful, teachers identified natural synergies between subjects and collaborated effectively between departments to plan opportunities for pupils to build on their knowledge and understanding and apply their skills. Where it was less successful, schools implemented cross-departmental working without adequately considering the benefits and pitfalls. Too often this involved making whole scale changes to departments and Areas of Learning and Experience (AoLEs) without thinking about their vision for curriculum and teaching. This often led to schools implementing an overarching theme for a whole department or area without first thinking about effective learning in the separate disciplines. This led to tentative links being made and did not have a positive impact on pupils’ learning or progress. In September we published a set of prompts for teachers to use with pupils to explore how they can work together more closely to plan learning.

Overall, across all sectors, practitioners welcomed the opportunity to adapt their practice to meet the needs of pupils in their settings more effectively. They often spoke of an increased sense of freedom to experiment and explore new approaches. Where this was most effective, leaders encouraged practitioners to reflect carefully on their practice whilst maintaining a clear focus on the impact on pupils’ outcomes and progress.

In our 2018 thematic report, ‘Improving Teaching’, we reflected on what constitutes effective teaching and provided some useful examples of how schools had gone about making changes. The ‘Teaching and Learning’ and ‘Early Years’ toolkits from the Education Endowment Foundation provide valuable summaries of the cost and impact of various approaches to improving learner progress.

Curriculum design and planning

Providers increasingly adapted their curriculum to reflect the context of their setting and the needs of their learners. In the best cases, leaders ensured an initial focus on arriving at a collaborative vision for the curriculum based on engagement with learners, parents, staff and, in a very few cases, the community, before moving swiftly on to its development. Often, this included ensuring that the curriculum provided valuable opportunities for learners to explore the historic, cultural and social features of their community and Wales. In many cases, providers also used their review of the curriculum to enhance opportunities to learn about the diversity of society in Wales and the wider world. We explored these themes in detail in our reports:

Most special schools are generally well placed to implement curriculum reform. In most cases, the curriculum offer was already generally well matched to the principles and purposes of the Curriculum for Wales. Special schools have continued to use their existing strong networks to work collaboratively on developing their curriculum offers. Nearly all special schools are implementing the Curriculum for Wales from September including just under a third of special schools with secondary aged pupils.

Assessment and progression

Both primary and secondary schools often used the 12 pedagogical principles outlined in the Successful Futures report to help inform initiatives to improve teaching. Many schools placed a valuable, renewed focus on formative assessment strategies to ensure effective feedback to pupils as they carry out tasks and undertake their learning.

A very few primary schools used curriculum guidance confidently to develop a picture of what progress looks like through their own individual curricula. In these schools, where a vision for progress was more clearly developed, schools used the frameworks and statements of ‘what matters’ to plan carefully for progress across the school. They incorporated opportunities for classroom assessment that allowed teachers to adapt their practice lesson by lesson and, over time, to move pupils towards overarching aims and objectives. These schools understood that the primary purpose of assessment is as a tool to be used by teachers for evolving effective practice and supporting learning.

Around half of secondary schools have already begun to introduce the Curriculum for Wales in Year 7. Despite generally positive attitudes towards the opportunities for development afforded by the Curriculum for Wales, perceived barriers continued to impede progress in a majority of secondary schools. These included a lack of certainty around future qualifications and accountability arrangements. Work is ongoing to develop new GCSEs and vocational qualifications, but this is in the consultation phase therefore there are no firm details yet. Many primary and secondary schools also continued to request additional guidance on assessment and planning for progression.

Many leaders across all schools and PRUs identified concerns about assessment and progression in the Curriculum for Wales, especially over identifying and describing what progress through the curriculum should look like.

Professional learning

In many cases, providers accessed and devised appropriate professional learning opportunities to assist staff with preparing for the implementation of the Curriculum for Wales. The sharing of effective practice within schools was used increasingly well to support teachers to develop their approaches to teaching and learning, particularly once COVID-19 restrictions began to ease. Frequently, schools began to engage more purposefully with national and international research to inform the changes they were making. In the best cases, teachers reflected well on the impact that their adaptations were having on the progress of pupils, and they modified ideas identified in research well to suit the context of their school. However, in many cases schools prioritised curriculum design over improving the effectiveness of teaching and failed to acknowledge sufficiently the significant impact improving the quality of teaching has on ensuring the progress of pupils.

ITE partnerships ensured that their programmes paid due regard to preparing new teachers for the implementation of the Curriculum for Wales. As part of this, they enabled students to consider curriculum planning and approaches to teaching and learning that align with curriculum reform. The pandemic limited some of this work and, in many cases, students were not exposed as fully as would have been desirable to the practicalities of curriculum design.

Partnership working

The four regional consortia and the three local authorities no longer in a consortium developed suitable approaches to support schools to develop their curriculum. As part of this, they began to develop stronger approaches to supporting effective collaboration between primary and secondary schools. However, as we indicated in our thematic report, ‘The Curriculum for Wales – How are regional consortia and local authorities supporting schools?’, too often consortia and local authorities failed to ensure that support was sufficiently bespoke to the needs of providers and they did not evaluate the impact of their work effectively enough. ITE partnerships also provided valuable opportunities for primary and secondary students to work across phases to explore cross-curricular work and teaching and learning approaches. In most cases, non-maintained settings began to work with their partner primaries, and primaries with their cluster secondary schools, to consider consistency and progression across their curriculums. However, in nearly all cases this work remained at an early stage of development and focused on specific elements of the Curriculum for Wales, such as the development of Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) from primary to secondary.

Valuable links between special schools and external providers began to re-establish as COVID-19 restrictions eased. This helped to ensure beneficial learning experiences for pupils, such as visits to local places of interest, the development of vocational skills and work-related learning opportunities.

Pioneer schools were well supported by the regional consortia and Welsh Government to engage with the national development phase of the Curriculum for Wales. However, across all sectors, providers that were not involved in the pioneer schools’ network felt that there were too few opportunities for them to learn about this work and to use it to influence the development of their own provision.