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School Leadership Conference (part 2)

In my last post I wrote about my presentation to headteachers at the Incerts leadership conference in Cardiff last week. As I noted, I ran out of time towards the end of my presentation when I was going to talk to the audience about lessons we have learned, as school leaders, from the introduction and development of Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) in Scotland. Wales is embarking on a similar curricular restructure drawn up by Professor Graham Donaldson from Scotland and are taking a very similar approach to that we have been working on since 2002, following the National Debate on Education in Scotland. I did manage to cover the main points briefly at the end of my talk but I wanted to add a little more explanation here too.

I started with a quote from the Welsh Government's website on their vision for their new curriculum called 'Succesful Futures'. On the website they wrote in July 2014, 'Our vision is to provide a coherent and integrated curriculum and assessment framework for schools, which raises standards of achievement and widens educational opportunity.' How could anyone argue against this vision? I asked. A word of caution I gave was not about the vision and aims of the new curriculum, but what it could become. In Scotland the original vision and aims for Curriculum for Excellence were set out succinctly in a few pages of A4 paper. However, what followed was a veritable tsunami of paperwork and bureaucracy that we were now having to tackle as a matter of urgency. This was never a fault of the curriculum vision and its architects but, I feel, emerged out of the different layers within the system and organisations charged with supporting its implementation and assuring both quality and accountability. As each layer or organisation contributed from its own perspective, so more paperwork, structures and systems were introduced and looked for. Isn't it ever so with many well meaning and well informed change and development within education, we quickly lose the vision and the aims under a mountain of irrelevant bureaucracy that can destroy many a good intention?

Although it wasn't on my original slide for my presentation, my first piece of advice to the Welsh Government, and those charged with delivering on the vision above, would be make sure you have lots of baseline assessment now on where the system is and how it is performing before you begin implementation. One of the criticisms we have faced with CfE in Scotland is that we didn't carry this out and have evidence so that we could robustly demonstrate the impact and progress, or otherwise, over time. This is quite crucial if you are wanting to demonstrate success and retain the support of the profession, politicians, parents, and other crucial partners. If you are saying down the line 'this has been a great success.' you better be prepared for someone to say 'show us the evidence of your success.'

I felt that it was crucial that schools, their leaders and teachers in Wales become actively involved immediately in the process of shaping the curriculum and its structures. In Scotland there was almost a delay of a number of years as many waited to be told what to do, and how. I personally felt this was a consequence of years where teachers and schools were seen a just delivery mechanisms for curricula and programmes developed by others in the hierarchy. We de-professionalised the profession and some found it very hard to then be asked to shape the new curriculum to their own local contexts and needs. If you create a vacuum like this, someone will fill it. But what they fill it with might not be what you wish or what is most desirable. So, it is crucial everyone is engaged from the outset.

My next piece of advice was 'I don't care what it is called, it's about learning and teaching.' It is imperative that school leaders ensure that the new curriculum remains about learning and teaching and keeps this at the heart of everything. If schools and their leaders are not actively involved it can quickly become about systems, structures and paperwork, leading to high levels of frustration and low levels of impact. This is not to say that structure and systems are not important, but my contention has always been that these need to be constructed around the learning you are trying to facilitate and not vice versa. School leaders need to make this case at all levels in the system and ensure they do not waste time and energy that could be better spent developing learning and teaching practices and understandings.

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes we made in Scotland was in how we delayed and failed to properly consider our assessment structures  and how to match these to the new curriculum and learning experiences of our learners. Because of this we created a lot of angst and stress for learners, parents and teachers which has really come home to roost over the last couple years in our secondary schools. We never allowed enough time for schools and teachers to engage with shaping new assessment structures and how courses might need to change, and we kept on working with the old structures at the end of school education. It was perfectly understandable for secondary schools to keep the old structures as their focus, there was nothing else and because it was also remained the main tool for assessing and reporting on their progress as a main part of accountability processes. I have lost count of the number of times I have had conversations with secondary colleagues where they have said things like 'I really believe in and support CfE, but that's not how we are judged, and we have to prepare our students for the exams they will actually sit.' We still haven't got this sorted satisfactorily, so my advice to Wales is to spend a lot of time now in thinking about how you are going to match final qualifications with the new learning experiences you are wishing to develop and promote. Don't wait until learners are only a few years away from their exams to consider this.

My next point was closely linked to this, and this was about the need to involve and keep parents informed as you begin the process of re-shaping and defining your education system. I feel another of our errors in Scotland was in not speaking with and informing parents enough at the outset of CfE. This could have been because everyone was unsure of what it was going to look like at that point anyway. But, it is imperative that we keep parents informed and involved, so that they understand the changes and the reasons behind change. One could also add that it is similarly important that we keep other partners informed and as key members of the change process. People like businesses, universities, colleges, other agencies who work with young people and the like all have a crucial role, and the changes have impacts on them too, so they need to know what is going on, and why.

School leaders and the system in general should see the development of a new curriculum as an opportunity to re-energise and re-professionalise the profession. In Scotland we had held a national conversation around education ahead of the design and introduction of CfE and in this teachers and their representative bodies, as well as headteachers, had all complained about top-down initiatives and change, and about things just being done to them by others. They wanted more control and more say about direction of travel and wanted to be able to use their own local contexts to help shape change. This is what they were supposed to get from CfE, though it still took a lot of them by surprise when it happened. It also meant a lot of mindsets and attitudes had to change and we almost had to redefine what it meant to be a professional teacher. This was not easy for many, and some still struggle, but for me it was well worth that struggle. Teachers are expected to be critical and reflective practitioners and to have active roles in shaping the curriculum and the learning for their learners. I would urge all in the Welsh system to embrace this opportunity for professional growth in the same way.

A point I also wanted to make was about when you are managing a radical change agenda for you and your staff, the way to really manage this, and keep it meaningful, is to ensure you look at the whole picture holistically and make connections. Staff in the two schools I lead were feeling overwhelmed by all the 'things' they felt they had to deal with in the implementation of a new curriculum. It was only when we were able to make the connections visible and active between the key elements that we were able to feel we were really in charge of the programme of change in a way which was meaningful and reflected our local context. This is not a case of trying to do everything at once, but about having learning and teaching at the centre then developing those structures and systems to deliver this. If you identify issues around learning and then gather data about this, engage with research, then look to implement new strategies, you cannot do this without developing you curriculum, pedagogies, planning, assessment to support learning, reporting and collaborative working in a managed and connected way. One of the things we identified very early on is that there is no destination in a school's development journey, or a system's, it is rather a continuous and relentless desire to develop and get better. That is why to me 'it doesn't matter what it's called, it is always about learning and teaching.' 

The final point I wanted to make was another plea and word of caution. I support entirely the bold decision of the Welsh Government and their direction of travel. I would encourage schools and their leaders to embrace the challenges ahead and to see the opportunities. Most importantly I would add, make it work! If you think this is a better road to go down than other ones chosen by other countries and systems, and you have support from your politicians, then you have to make sure it works and produces positive long-term benefits for all in the system and the country. If it doesn't deliver on the vision, I can guarantee you will not like what comes after it. This is likely to be more top-down direction, with high stakes testing, high accountability and more and more prescription. You decide which you think is best for your learners. There is a whole host of research out there that would indicate you are embarking on a direction that will have high and sustained positive impacts for learners, but it is down to you to ensure it works. This is your opportunity to work in a way that allows all to act professionally to develop the system from within. It will not be easy, but it is achievable for the benefit of all young learners in Wales and the system as a whole. Remember 'if you keep doing what you have always done, you will keep getting what you have always got.'

It looks like I will need a third post regarding this conference. I want to relate some of the main messages from the other speakers too, and to do them justice, I will need to write another post which will hopefully appear later this week.

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