Donaldson Review: Next steps and ‘The Great Debate’

20 March 2015

Article by Michael Dauncey, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

picture of young boy in classroom

Image from Pixabay. Licensed under the Creative Commons

This is the fifth and final article in this week’s blog series on the Donaldson Review. It looks at some of the initial reaction to the proposed radical reformation of the curriculum in Wales and sets out what we can expect to be the next steps.

(See yesterday’s article.)

The Minister for Education and Skills, Huw Lewis, issued a written statement on 25 February when the Successful Futures (pdf1.58MB) report was published and then outlined the Welsh Government’s initial reaction to Assembly Members in the Senedd on 4 March.

The Minister concurred with Professor Donaldson that ‘the need for change is clear’ and said his review offered ‘the opportunity to build in Wales, for our young people, a world leading curriculum’.

The Minister added he was determined to ‘engage, from the outset, with as many people from across Wales as possible’ and consequently has launched ‘The Great Debate’.

The first phase of the Great Debate runs until 8 May and will act as a consultation on what the Review has recommended. However, Huw Lewis, has said it is more than that. It is, he hopes, ‘a manifestation of leadership’ that is required from the education sector to deliver this degree of reform. He told AMs on 4 March:

‘It’s also about the absorption of the fundamentals of this message, most primarily by the professionals themselves because … without the commitment and without the profession putting their shoulder to the wheel, this is undeliverable. No politician can deliver, given the philosophy behind Donaldson, a new curriculum, tied up with a ribbon and delivered to each and every classroom. This is going to entail years of professional input at a level that many of our teaching workforce have never been expected to work at before’.

Importance of pedagogy (teaching)

As the Donaldson Review recognises, successful implementation of any new curriculum will ultimately depend on what happens in the classroom. It appears the assertion put forward by Sir Michael Barber and Mona Mourshed (pdf4.41 MB) that ‘the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers’ is not lost on policymakers in Wales.

Professor Donaldson himself made plenty of reference to the importance of Professor John Furlong’s report, Teaching Tomorrow’s Teachers, which has now been published. The Donaldson Review identified the ‘fundamental interdependency between the purposes of the curriculum and pedagogy’ (the study and practice of how best to teach). In his report, Professor Furlong describes initial teacher training as being at a ‘critical turning point’ and recommends that a more ‘expansive’ form is needed for teachers to be able to deliver on the Donaldson blueprint.

For the Minister himself, the national professional learning model for teachers (‘the New Deal’), coupled with the Furlong Review, ‘will be crucial in supporting implementation of any new curriculum in Wales’. In his statement on 9 March responding to the publication of Professor Furlong’s report, he said there was nothing in the report with which he disagrees in principle.

Scale of the challenge of implementation

Professor Donaldson himself is very clear about the level of change needed and devotes his penultimate chapter to considering the implications of what he recommends and its implementation. He reports that one of the recurring issues raised with the review team during their evidence gathering was whether mechanisms for implementation of previous reforms had sufficiently considered whether schools and teachers had the capacity to deliver them.

This echoes the OECD’s observations of the Welsh education system (pdf3.74MB) that ‘schools are currently facing some challenges in implementing the numerous policies and reforms’ under the Welsh Government’s improvement agenda ‘because there are so many’. The OECD found that some head teachers and stakeholders describe a risk of partial implementation or ‘reform fatigue’.

Professor Donaldson urges that lessons of previous attempts at reform are learnt and that a change strategy is adopted. He recognises that his proposals are ‘radical and fundamental’, and ‘imply deep and enduring change’. He suggests that the changes will take time and should be ‘carefully phased in’, stressing that ‘building a robust basis of support across all stakeholders and political parties is key’.

The signs of such a political consensus look promising with Wales Online reporting cross-party support for Professor Donaldson’s plans the day after his report was published. It remains to be seen whether such a consensus can hold until after the Minister outlines his formal considered response to the Review (expected after the end of the first phase of the Great Debate on 8 May and before the start of the Assembly’s summer recess).

One thing for sure is that despite the level of attention and detail Professor Donaldson and his team have put into producing the Successful Futures report, most of the hard work still lies ahead. Returning to Sir Michael Barber (You Tube) (chief education strategist with Pearson and former adviser to the UK Government):

‘One of the commonest mistakes that politicians around the world make is this. They think that getting the policy right is difficult and they are right about that. They also think that it is 90 per cent of the task done … and they are completely wrong about that. They think that it is 90 per cent getting the policy right and then implementation will take care of itself. Actually, … it is pretty much the reverse of that. Getting the policy right is difficult but it is only 10 per cent.’

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