This is the first in a series of three posts that explore the philosophy behind some of the curriculum reform proposals, in particular those relating to assessment. In this post we begin by summarising the core proposals of the Donaldson report, before considering the relationship between assessment and pedagogy.
Successful Futures: A Summary
In March 2014 the DfES announced a thoroughgoing review of Welsh curriculum provision. Less than a year later in February 2015 the review team, led by Professor Graham Donaldson, published Successful Futures: Independent Review of Curriculum and Assessment Arrangements in Wales. The final report was radical and wide-ranging in scope, containing 68 recommendations for curriculum and assessment reform. The proposals were well-received by the education establishment and the profession alike, as reflected in feedback from the subsequent ‘Great Debate’ consultation. The DfES formally accepted Donaldson’s proposals in full and set out plans for implementation in their education strategy document, A Curriculum for Wales, A Curriculum for Life, published in October 2015.
Professor Donaldson’s call for evidence received over 700 responses which, coupled with disappointing PISA results and the 2014 OECD report on Welsh education, led him to conclude that ‘the current national curriculum and assessment arrangements no longer meet the needs of the children and young people of Wales’. To address this situation the report proposed that a new curriculum be built from the ground up with the help of practitioners, signalling a full-scale departure from the National Curriculum of 1988 which had become ‘overloaded, complicated and, in parts, outdated’.
Donaldson has proposed that the new curriculum be developed based on four core purposes, namely that children and young people develop as:
Donaldson observed how the differing philosophies and approaches that characterised the Foundation Phase and Key Stages have led to problematic transitions that hindered progression. Consequently, he calls for 'a continuum of learning from 3 to 16 without phases and key stages'.
Structurally, the new curriculum is to be comprised of six ‘Areas of Learning and Experience’: Expressive arts; Health and well-being; Humanities; Languages, literacy and communication; Mathematics and numeracy; and Science and technology. These will be underpinned by three ‘Cross-Curriculum Responsibilities’: Literacy, Numeracy and Digital Competence. Donaldson has submitted that Digital Competence ought to be given the same weight as Literacy and Numeracy. This is an encouraging advance on the recommendations of the ICT Steering Group’s 2013 report to Welsh Government that Computing be given ‘core’ status as a ‘fourth science’, given its relationship to the other Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines and in light of the emerging vocational landscape.
A Mandate for Assessment Reform
Of the 68 recommendations put forward by Donaldson, 19 deal with assessment. The report acknowledges the need for substantial reform in this area, citing ‘[dissatisfaction] with current assessment arrangements’ as ‘one of the strongest messages’ received from the call for evidence. The ‘continuum of learning’ outlined in Successful Futures is set to replace the current system of Outcomes and Levels with ‘Progression Steps’, which will relate ‘broadly to expectations at ages 5, 8, 11, 14 and 16’. Donaldson questions both the reliability and the validity of the current ‘best-fit’ approach to assessment using levels, which he contends can only provide limited information about pupils’ achievement at best. ‘Progression Steps’ on the other hand, are to provide more of a ‘road map’ for children’s learning, as opposed to being ‘universal expectations of the performance of all children and young people at fixed points’. Each Progression Step will contain ‘Achievement Outcomes’ that reflect the four curriculum purposes and pupils’ achievement in a broader sense than simply measuring attainment. They will be written from the child’s point of view, using an ‘I can…’ or ‘I have…’ construction, and in language they can understand. Encouraging pupils to engage in self-assessment is a key aspect of Donaldson’s proposals – the impact of this approach is commended by a recent OECD review of assessment practice, as enabling pupils to become ‘self-directed learners’.
Assessment meets Pedagogy
Successful Futures makes clear the integral relationship between pedagogy and assessment, stating that ‘[assessment for learning] is as relevant to good teaching and learning as it is to assessment’. This connection between what schools teach and how they assess is explored by Daisy Christodoulou in her recent book Making Good Progress? The future of Assessment for Learning. Christodoulou argues that the effectiveness of assessment for learning hinges on whether a ‘generic-skill’ or a ‘deliberate-practice’ method of teaching is adopted. The former is based on the principle that skills are transferable and can be taught directly, whereas Christodoulou advocates the latter, asserting that skills need to be broken down and the component parts taught without necessarily referencing the targeted skill. Conversely, cognitive scientist Guy Claxton has been a long-stranding proponent of a skills-based method called ‘Building Learning Power’. Claxton contends that teaching should be about exercising pupils’ ‘mental muscle groups’. Consequently, according to Claxton the curriculum should provide a ‘comprehensive mental exercise regime’ that cultivates the capacities necessary to acquire the ‘generic ability to learn’.
Christodoulou and Claxton present two nuanced, contrasting examples of current education theory – but they also represent a decades-long, often-polarised debate as to whether the curriculum should focus on teaching pupils knowledge or skills. Donaldson considers this a false dichotomy and attempts to chart a middle way in Successful Futures:
The ‘subject against skill/competence’ debate represents an unhelpful polarisation, since both make important contributions to fulfilling the purposes of the curriculum. The structure of the curriculum should therefore ensure that the vital contribution of disciplinary learning is preserved but is supplemented by other aspects that relate directly to the needs of today and provide sound preparation for the challenges of tomorrow.
Nevertheless, Donaldson’s proposal that the curriculum be organised into AoLEs has inevitably drawn comparisons to the structure of the current Foundation Phase, which is based on pedagogical principles aimed at facilitating exploratory learning more so than direct instruction. However, principles 3 and 4 of Donaldson’s own 12 PPs underscore his determination to pursue a both/and approach:
3) Good teaching and learning means employing a blend of approaches including direct teaching
4) Good teaching and learning means employing a blend of approaches including those that promote problem solving, creative and critical thinking
Again, Donaldson is keen that what are often branded as ‘traditional’ teaching methods (or ‘direct teaching’) should not be excluded by the incorporation of ‘discovery learning or constructivism’. This striving for a more balanced approach is refreshing, although the question as to whether it can be effectively implemented in practice remains. For example, in his recent overview of Welsh education policy Philip Dixon summarises the views of Donaldson’s more cynical critics as ‘worried [that the report] had been a bit too much ‘all things to all men’.
A programme of implementation that devolves the responsibility for writing a curriculum to such a broad and diverse network of stakeholders raises many strategic questions. Crucially, how can a tendency toward the silo mentality be avoided? Can a unified reform agenda be realised when so much rests on interpretation of indeterminate proposals? Let’s hope Donaldson’s continuing strategic involvement as chair of the Independent Advisory Group will ensure the development process stays true to his original vision.
In our next post we will explore the emphasis Donaldson places on formative assessment, and the implications of his proposals for teacher assessment practices and accountability.
Across the border in England, the DfE are in the throes of an enquiry into primary assessment following the removal of National Curriculum Levels. Meanwhile, Welsh education is undergoing an exciting and challenging transition. Education practitioners are faced with a unique opportunity to build an entirely new curriculum from the ground up - the challenge right now is the implementation of this ambitious project.
Moving Forward Together
We were excited to attend the recent Central South Consortium conference “Moving Forward Together”, where we heard from Pioneer and non-Pioneer schools about their engagement with Graham Donaldson’s proposals in his review of the current Welsh curriculum. It was encouraging to see widespread enthusiasm for the “four curriculum purposes” and the “pedagogical principles” outlined in Successful Futures. Equally heartening to hear, were stories about the creative ways schools have been embedding digital competence as a cross-curriculum responsibility.
What was noticeably absent from the conference was an update from the curriculum Pioneer schools about progress on the development of the Areas of Learning and Experience (AoLEs) and the assessment framework(s) for the new curriculum. This is unsurprising in light of the recent findings of the Children, Young People and Education Committee’s (CYPE) enquiry into the implementation of Successful Futures.
The CYPE Committee met between November 2016 and January this year to scrutinise the progress of the Donaldson reforms. They heard evidence from Donaldson himself, various Pioneer schools, the Regional Consortia, teachers’ unions and the Education Secretary, amongst other stakeholders. Arguably the most pressing issue was the delay of Strand 2 of Welsh Government’s schedule for implementation – the “design of [the] framework and principles for each AoLE, including progression reference points and achievement outcomes” – reflected in the committee’s concluding judgement that “some aspects of the implementation of Successful Futures are not progressing as well as we would expect”. Due to begin in September 2016, the Committee heard that the initial meetings for Strand 2 were due to commence at the end of January.
In their evidence submitted to the CYPE Committee, the NAHT, NUT and NASUWT all raised concerns about there being insufficient clarity amongst Pioneer schools about exactly what they had been tasked with. This lack of understanding has led to frustrations for some Pioneers with the reform process generally, as was acknowledged in the report from the Regional Consortia. The challenge will now be for the groups responsible for the strategic oversight of the reforms (the Independent Advisory Group, Change Board, Strategic Stakeholder Group and the recently coined “Programme Board”) to facilitate more effective communication with and between Pioneer schools, in addition to coordinating the development of the new curriculum content.
Teachers’ unions also expressed anxieties about the threat of tribalism emerging from the divide between Pioneer and non-Pioneer schools. The need for unified engagement from the whole sector was a key emphasis of the CSC conference, and is undoubtedly a consideration of the joint proposal the Consortia have put to Welsh Government. In this they “offer a strong, focused and detailed structure for realising the recommendations” of the review. Kirsty Williams has also promised a review of the Pioneer school model itself, due to be published at the end of 2017.
A Demanding Timescale
Whilst the CYPE Committee affirmed the partnership model for curriculum development, they also echoed the NAHT’s concerns that the quality of the work could be compromised by an increasingly demanding timescale – “it must be about getting this right for pupils and not rushing in change to meet a deadline”. The DfES had originally been considering a timescale of 8-10 years, based on the Scottish experience of curriculum reform, but the turnaround was subsequently fixed at three years from the beginning of the Pioneer schools’ work. However, the missed deadline for Strand 1 means the AoLE design work in Strand 2 has to be completed in a considerably smaller window (something the Minister conceded to the Committee). This was confirmed at the beginning of February by the appearance of the third version of the department’s “Plan for curriculum and assessment design and development” on their website, dated “November 2016”. In light of the timescale issues experienced thus far, the Committee proposed that Welsh Government undertake contingency planning in case the Pioneer model fails to deliver the desired output in time.
The DfES released the fourth curriculum “Stakeholder Newsletter” at the end of January, in which they summarise the preliminary output and announce that the first incarnation of the AoLEs should appear by June 2017. The recommendations from the various curriculum working groups are largely constructive and encouraging. In the meantime the Kirsty Williams' response to the Committee’s findings is due any day, following her announcement that the “refreshed” Welsh Government strategic delivery plan (“Qualified for life: A curriculum for Wales – a curriculum for life”) will be released in the spring. The Committee acknowledged the challenge of translating the conceptual Donaldson Review into concrete proposals that would be understood on the ground. Let’s hope the department accepts the Committee’s recommendations and commits to maintaining tangible ways in which this unique and exciting partnership model can move forward.
We should be encouraged by the Education Secretary's determination to "keep the child at the centre and develop a broad, balanced, inclusive and challenging curriculum". The current mandate for reform has the potential to deliver an education system that will enable children and young people in Wales to flourish in the modern world - an agenda we can all get behind.
Find out more - key strategic documents
The Assessment Foundation works alongside the four regional consortia in Wales, because we all want to ensure that our messages to schools are consistent. We are pleased to be working particularly closely with GwE, where almost 90% of primary schools use Incerts for formative assessment, and to support the summative assessment at the ends of the Key Stages.
There has always been inconsistency across Wales in how this summative assessment is made, and GwE have been working to address this problem recently. For the end of Key Stage assessments in summer 2017, they have decided that an "over half" threshold should be used. They have written “to best reflect an outcome or level, a learner must achieve the majority of statements noted against that outcome or level”, and they have sent schools three examples of how to arrive at a whole Outcome or Level this way. However, they have added that end of Key Stage assessments from Incerts and other electronic systems should not be used this year, and we know this has surprised some people.
The reason is that Incerts does not normally produce the whole Outcomes/Levels needed for the statutory End of Key Stage data directly, and if different schools use it in different ways this can lead to inconsistency. Incerts does “count up” all the individual statements achieved by a pupil as GwE described, but it uses them to produce sub-Outcomes and sub-Levels, or decimal Outcomes and decimal Levels. When whole Outcomes or Levels are required, we have always left it to the school to take a closer look at the “c”s, and to decide when to award a “secure Outcome 5” or a “secure Level 4”, etc.
However, you can follow GwE’s “majority of statements” rule and still use Incerts to help you: there’s no need to count statements manually or judge whether enough have been ticked “by eye”. The thresholds built into Incerts are such that a pupil will be in the “top half of the c band” if the majority of statements are achieved, and the “bottom half of the c band” if not. So, to ensure you follow GwE’s rule at the end of this year, you just need to look at the decimal Outcomes/Levels and know that the mid-point of our “c” band is at “X.17”. Put simply, if the decimal score is above “X.17” you can say the Outcome or Level is secure by the “majority of statements” rule. So for example, you would return Level 4 to Welsh Government for Key Stage 2 pupils scoring above 4.17, and so on.
It’s relatively straightforward to make this cut-off automatically in a spreadsheet, and our Support Team will create a template for you shortly. If you have any questions in the meantime though, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Is your school raising money for Save the Children on Christmas Jumper Day, otherwise known as Friday 16th December? So are we! And if one of your pupils will tell us about it, we'll make an additional donation on their behalf.
Please ask them to write a short letter, in English or Welsh, telling us why wearing a woolly in Wales or Winchester could save a life on the other side of the world. Why not ask the whole class to write something for you, maybe even over the Christmas break, and then choose the best letter to send to us? In January, We'll write back to the pupil with a personal thank you, and details of the donation.
We don't need to receive the letter straight away, but if your school is going to join in please drop a quick email to email@example.com shortly and we'll give you more details.
Whatever you're doing on Friday, have a fun day and great Christmas break!
Today we've released a major upgrade to Incerts Snap to the App Store. This version of Snap has been redesigned from the ground up, in particular to take advantage of the screen space and processing power of the iPad. It makes capturing and attaching evidence to your assessments significantly easier and faster.
Although Snap looks a bit different from before--look out for the new icon on your home screen--you should find it easy to use. But please have a look at our updated "How-to Guide" for Snap, which you can find here: http://www.incerts.org/resources/HowtoUseIncertsSnap. If you have any questions or comments, don't hesitate to get in touch with our Support team.
We're delighted to announce that we will hold a series of professional learning events across Wales to support teachers with formative assessment and their use of Incerts.
During the autumn term we'll be holding events in Newport, Cardiff, Conwy, Port Talbot, Treforest and Llanelli. These sessions are aimed primarily at class teachers but should be of interest to anyone using the system. You can find out exactly what will be covered and book places here:
Session for Foundation Phase Practitioners
Session for Key Stage 2 Teachers
Further sessions will be available in the spring term. We're developing professional learning events aimed at school leaders too, covering data aspects of Incerts including tracking and supporting vulnerable groups. Please look out for future emails and Tweets from @AssessmentFdn.
Incerts is changing to become the Assessment Foundation.
The Assessment Foundation will continue to provide the Incerts system to schools but will extend its role in championing effective assessment in classrooms and influencing assessment policy. In addition, the Foundation will develop:
Chris Padden, Chief Executive at the Assessment Foundation, said:
Chris Taylor, Professor of Education Policy at Cardiff University, said:
Rob Williams, Director of Policy at NAHT Cymru, said: