Welsh education is heading towards its biggest shake up for two generations. The new Curriculum for Wales is intended to place responsibility for what pupils are taught with their teachers. It does not specify any required content but instead sets out ‘the essence of learning’ that should underpin the topics taught and learning activities employed. At secondary school, many traditional subjects will be merged into new broad areas of learning. The curriculum is intended to produce ‘ambitious and capable learners’ who are ‘enterprising and creative’, ‘ethical and informed citizens’, and ‘healthy and confident’.
Given how radical this change potentially is, there has been very little public debate about it. This is partly rooted in how abstract and difficult to understand the curriculum documentation is. It is dominated by technical language and abstract ideas and there is very little concrete to debate. There also seems to be a belief that in science and maths very little will change because of how those subjects are based on unavoidable core knowledges. Instead, most of the public discussion that has occurred has centred on the position of Welsh history.
The focus on history is rooted in how obsessed much of the Welsh public sphere (including myself) is by questions of identity. History is central to why Wales is a nation and thus has long been promoted by those seeking is develop a Welsh sense of nationhood. Concerns that children are not taught enough Welsh history are longstanding and date back to at least the 1880s. The debates around the teaching of Welsh history are also inherently political. Those who believe in independence often feel their political cause is hamstrung by people being unaware of their own history.
The new curriculum is consciously intended to be ‘Welsh’ in outlook and it requires the Welsh context to be central to whatever subject matter is delivered. This matters most in the Humanities where the Welsh context is intended to be delivered through activities and topics that join together the local, national and global. The intention is that this will instil in them ‘passion and pride in themselves, their communities and their country’. This quote comes from a guidance document for schools and might alarm those who fear a government attempt at Welsh nation building. Other documents are less celebratory but still clearly Welsh in outlook. Thus the goal stated in the main documentation is that learners should ‘develop a strong sense of their own identity and well-being’, ‘an understanding of others’ identities and make connections with people, places and histories elsewhere in Wales and across the world.’
A nearby slate quarry could thus be used to teach about local Welsh-speaking culture, the Welsh and British industrial revolution, and the connections between the profits of the slave trade and the historical local economy. This could bring in not just history, but literature, art, geography and economics too. There is real potential for exciting programmes of study that break down subject boundaries and engage pupils with where they live and make them think and understand their community’s connections with Wales and the wider world.
This is all sensible but there remains a vagueness around the underlying concepts. The Humanities section of the curriculum speaks of the need for ‘consistent exposure to the story of learners’ locality and the story of Wales’. Schools are asked to ‘Explore Welsh businesses, cultures, history, geography, politics, religions and societies’. But this leaves considerable freedom over the balance of focus and what exactly ‘consistent exposure’ means in practice. If schools want to minimize the Welsh angle in favour of the British or the global, they will be able to do so as long as the Welsh context is there. It is not difficult to imagine some schools treating ‘the story of Wales’ as a secondary concern because that is what already sometimes happens.
The existing national curriculum requires local and Welsh history to be ‘a focus of the study’ but, like its forthcoming replacement, it never defines very closely what that means in terms of actual practice. In some schools, it seems that the Welsh perspective is reduced to a tick box exercise where Welsh examples are occasionally employed but never made the heart of the history programme. I say ‘seems’ because there is no data on the proportion of existing pre-GCSE history teaching that is devoted to Welsh history. But all the anecdotal evidence points to Wales often not being at the heart of what history is taught, at least in secondary schools. At key stage 3 (ages 11 to 14) in particular, the Welsh element can feel rather nominal as many children learn about the Battle of Hastings, Henry VIII and the Nazis. GCSEs were reformed in 2017 to ensure Welsh history is not marginalised but at A Level the options schools choose reveal a stark preference in some units away from not just Wales but Britain too.
Why schools chose not to teach more Welsh history is a complex issue. Within a curriculum that is very flexible, teachers deliver what they are confident in, what they have resources for, what interests them and what they think pupils will be interested in. Not all history teachers have been taught Welsh history at school or university and they thus perhaps prefer to lean towards those topics they are familiar with. Resources are probably an issue too. While there are plenty of Welsh history resources out there, they can be scattered around and locating them is not always easy. Some of the best date back to the 1980 and 90s and are not online. There is also amongst both pupils and teachers the not-unreasonable idea that Welsh history is simply not as interesting as themes such as Nazi Germany. This matters because, after key stage 3, different subjects are competing for pupils and thus resources.
The new curriculum does nothing to address any of these issues and it is probable that it will not do much to enhance the volume of Welsh history taught beyond the local level. It replicates the existing curriculum’s flexibility with some loose requirement for a Welsh focus. Within that flexibility, teachers will continue to be guided by their existing knowledge, what resources they already have, what topics and techniques they already know work, and how much time and confidence they have to make changes. Some schools will update what they do but in many there is a very real possibility that not much will change at all, as teachers simply mould the tried and tested existing curricular into the new model. No change is always the easiest policy outcome to follow. Those schools that already teach a lot of Welsh history will continue to do so. Many of those that do not will also probably carry on in that vein.
Of course, a system designed to allow different curricula is also designed to produce different outcomes. The whole point of the reform is for schools to be different to one another but there may be unintended consequences to this. Particularly in areas where schools are essentially in competition with each other for pupils, some might choose to develop a strong sense of Welshness across all subject areas because they feel it will appeal to local parents and local authority funders. Others might go the opposite way for the same reasons, especially in border areas where attracting staff from England is important. Welsh-medium schools are probably more likely to be in the former group and English-medium schools in the latter.
Moreover, the concerns around variability do not just extend to issues of Welsh identity and history. By telling schools they can teach what they feel matters, the Welsh Government is telling them they do not have to teach, say, the histories of racism or the Holocaust. It is unlikely that any school history department would choose not to teach what Hitler inflicted upon the world but they will be perfectly at liberty to do so; indeed, by enshrining their right to do this, the Welsh Government is saying it would be happy for any school to follow such a line. Quite how that fits with the government’s endorsement of Holocaust Memorial Day and Mark Drakeford’s reminder of the importance of remembering such genocides is unclear.
There are other policy disconnects. The right to vote in Senedd elections has been granted to sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds. Yet the government has decided against requiring them to be taught anything specific about that institution, its history and how Welsh democracy works. Instead, faith is placed in a vague requirement for pupils to be made into informed and ethical citizens. By age 16, the ‘guidance’ says learners should be able to ‘compare and evaluate local, national and global governance systems, including the systems of government and democracy in Wales, considering their impact on societies in the past and present, and the rights and responsibilities of citizens in Wales.’ Making Wales an ‘including’ rather than the main focus of this ‘progression step’ seems to me to downplay its importance. Moreover, what this sentence actually means in terms of class time and knowledge is up to schools and teachers. Some pupils will be taught lots about devolved politics, others little. The government is giving young people the responsibility of voting but avoiding its own responsibility to ensure they are taught in any depth what that means in a Welsh context.
The new curriculum will thus not educate everyone in the same elements of political citizenship or history because it is explicitly designed to not do so. Just as they do now, pupils will continue to leave schools with very different understandings of what Wales is, what the Senedd does and how both fit into British, European and global contexts. Perhaps that does not matter if we want pupils to make up their own minds about how they should be governed. But, at the very least, if we are going to give young people the vote, surely it is not too much to want them to be told where it came from, what it means, and what it can do.
But this is not the biggest missed opportunity of the curriculum. Wales already has an educational system that produces very different outcomes for those who go through it. In 2019, 28.4% of pupils eligible for free school meals achieved five A*-C grade GCSEs, compared with 60.5% of those not eligible. In 2018, 75.3% of pupils in Ceredigion hit this level, whereas in Blaenau Gwent only 56.7% did. These are staggering differences that have nothing to do with the curriculum and everything to do with how poverty impacts on pupils’ lives. There is nothing in the new curriculum that looks to eradicate such differences.
Teachers in areas with the highest levels of deprivation face a daily struggle to deal with its consequences. This will also impact on what the new curriculum can achieve in their schools. It will be easier to develop innovative programmes that take advantage of what the new curriculum can enable in schools where teachers are not dealing with the extra demands of pupils who have missed breakfast or who have difficult home lives. Fieldtrips are easiest in schools where parents can afford them. Home learning is most effective in homes with books, computers and internet access. The very real danger of the new curriculum is not what it will or will not do for Welsh citizenship and history but that it will exacerbate the already significant difference between schools in affluent areas and schools that are not. Wales needs less difference between its schools, not more.
Martin Johnes is Professor of History at Swansea University.
This essay was first published in the Welsh Agenda (2020).
For more analysis of history and the Curriculum for Wales see this essay.