Law setting out new national curriculum introduced at the Senedd

(Title Image: Welsh Government, Crown Copyright)

Curriculum & Assessment Bill
Introduced by Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor)
Bill (pdf)
Explanatory Memorandum (pdf)

Why introduce the Curriculum and Assessment Bill?

The Bill gives legal effect to the proposed new national curriculum for Wales (more details here).

The principles of the new curriculum were developed by Prof. Graham Donaldson during the Fourth Senedd. A white paper was published at the start of 2019 and following consultation exercises and the advice of expert groups, a final version was published at the start of 2020.

The new curriculum applies to students aged 3-16 and will be phased in for nursery, primary and Year 7 pupils from September 2022, with the process completed when 2022’s Year 7 cohort start Year 11 in September 2026.

The only provisions relating to sixth-forms/post-16 education mention providing a “broad and balanced curriculum”.

The Scottish curriculum – introduced in 2010 as the Curriculum for Excellence – is similar to the one being introduced in Wales. An independent review is currently being prepared by the OECD on its impact, with issues emerging about narrowing subject choice (at the Scottish equivalent of GCSE and A-Level) and a failure to close the attainment gap between state schools and independent schools.

The Lowdown: Four Key Proposals in the Bill

1. Enshrines the core principles of the new curriculum in Welsh law

I summarised the core principles here, but for the sake of clarity there’ll be four overarching principles/aims to the new curriculum (Four Purposes) and instead of traditional subjects, there’ll be six Areas of Learning (Expressive Arts, Health & Wellbeing, Humanities, Languages & Literacy, Mathematics & Numeracy, Science & Technology).

Teachers and schools will be given the freedom to choose how and (to an extent) what students study in each Area of Learning. However, religious education (more later), relationship & sexuality education (RSE), Welsh and English will be mandatory (with a few exceptions, touched on below).

Digital skills, literacy and numeracy will be fully integrated across all subjects, while a local, national and international context to learning (known as the concept of “cynefin”/”habitat”) aims to ensure students understand Wales and their place in the world.

Headteachers of Welsh-medium schools and nurseries can opt-out of mandatory English until pupils reach the age of 7 to ensure pupils attending Welsh-medium settings can gain a measure of fluency before they leave Foundation Phase.

Pupils will begin to specialise and choose subjects as they get older in preparation for GCSEs, and schools must offer a choice of subjects in Year 10 and 11 – though headteachers will be able to override this if a pupil isn’t meeting attainment expectations or a subject is impractical or disproportionately expensive to teach (subject to review/appeal).

Key Stages will be scrapped and replaced with progression steps at ages 5,8,11,14 and 16 based on a teacher’s assessment of how well a student is doing and a determination of what additional support they may need.

2. The Welsh Government will use three separate statutory codes to direct schools

The Welsh Government will be required to prepare three codes to govern specific areas of the curriculum:

  • What Matters Code – Sets out key concepts and expectations for what students learn at each progression step though, as said, schools and teachers will have a fair deal of flexibility.
  • Progression Code – Sets out how students move from one progression step to the next.
  • RSE Code – Sets out how relationship and sexuality education will be taught.

The draft codes will be subject to Senedd approval, seemingly under the negative procedure (they come into effect automatically unless MSs explicitly vote to reject them).

3. The curriculum can be amended or disapplied in special cases

The Welsh Government will be able to disapply or amend elements of the curriculum by order to specific schools or nurseries if those schools/nurseries are taking part in experiments or development work.

A development plan for students with Additional Learning Needs can also disapply parts of the curriculum, while headteachers (through powers in government regulations) will be able to disapply parts of the curriculum for any pupil for a maximum of 6 months (subject to appeal).

While Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) – usually used for children with behavioural problems or otherwise at risk of permanent exclusion – have to apply the new curriculum too, they’ll only need to do so “as far as is reasonably practical” in order to provide additional flexibility given the challenging teaching environment.

4. There are regulatory changes to religious education

Religious Education is to be reformed as Religion, Values & Ethics (RVE) – it’s actually the only specific subject dealt with in any detail on the face of the Bill, though I’m sure MSs will want to add their own as the Bill proceeds through the Senedd.

Faith schools can shape their RVE syllabus around their specific religion or denomination, but if there’s no mention of religious education in their trust deed, they’ll have to include the teaching of beliefs, religions and denominations other than the one of their school – though in such circumstances parents will be able to request that their children are taught solely to the religion/denomination of the trust deed.

The RVE syllabus will be drafted by local authorities. It must reflect that Christianity forms the main religious tradition in Great Britain whilst taking into account other religions and the range of non-religious philosophical positions.

The RVE syllabus in each local authority will be developed in consultation with an advisory council which will have to include representatives of non-religious philosophies (in practice this means humanism, but could potentially also include Pastafarians, Satanists, Jedis, Heavy Metal, Dennis Bergkamp and Scientology).

Sixth-formers (16-18-year-olds) can choose for themselves to opt-out of collective acts of worship and would no longer have to receive compulsory RVE. For the under-16s, parents can withdraw their children on request.

How much will the Curriculum & Assessment Bill cost?

A lot.

The Welsh Government has already spent around £68million on developing the new curriculum, teacher training and trialling it at pioneer schools. They expect to spend a further £21million in 2020-21. That’s £89million already.

The Regional Consortia have spent £15.5million, Estyn has spent £4.4million and Qualifications Wales £3.5million. So the total rises to around £113million before the curriculum has even been introduced.

The total cost of the Bill’s provisions (on top of the money that’s already been spent) is expected to be anything between £196.4million and £225.5million between 2021-22 and 2030-31.

The actual benefits are hard to quantify and the new curriculum is more about pedagogy/teaching methods than generating a hard quantifiable benefit.

There would be a natural positive social, environmental and economic impact if the new curriculum results in a closed attainment gap between disadvantaged and advantaged pupils and boys and girls. Other potential benefits could include improved qualification rates amongst school leavers and the teaching workforce, increased numbers of students staying on to post-16 education and also improved job satisfaction amongst teachers (which may reduce stress and sickness levels and improve recruitment and retention). It’ll be a long time before we’d see any of that though.

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