“If the success of this is going to be gauged entirely in academic qualifications, then Wales will have failed its young people.’’
Hamlett Films talks to headteacher Helen Jones, gaining an insight from the vanguard of the revolutionary new Welsh curriculum.
In terms of the all new Welsh curriculum, what would you say you’re most excited about in terms of change?
As much as it terrifies people, it’s going to be exciting to trust our teachers to be the leaders in their own classrooms. And to encourage the children to direct them as well. That localized curriculum really appeals to me. Obviously there’ll be a basis of knowledge, content and purpose, but it will have that local and contextualized flavor which makes learning so much more relevant for children in the classroom. That’s what’s so exciting, quite liberating in fact.
What form will the changes take?
So much of what our children have learned previously is irrelevant and repetitious. The number of times our children have learned about Nazi Germany throughout their education is worrying – and we cover volcanoes in many different guises without really explaining the links between physics, biology and geography so we don’t achieve depth of knowledge.’
The whole rote learning approach to maths is also something that is widely adopted as the accepted method of teaching Maths: we give the child hundreds and hundreds of questions on a process to ensure the child practices this process repeatedly. All you’re learning is the same method or process to answer that question. Actually what we should be trying to develop is the problem solving skills of our children and teaching them that there are many way that you can arrive at a particular answer.
What changes do you see in departure from the old curriculum?
The old curriculum is not fit for purpose. If it were 100% of my children would leave with top qualifications. But they’re not. We have seen this as an opportunity to explore what really engages our children in their learning experiences. The new curriculum refers to irresistible learning opportunities. That’s as simplistic as I wanted it to be. If you’ve got an engaged child then they will love their learning which can then almost happen by osmosis.
Do you think the new curriculum will give children what they need?
You need academics to become doctors, vets, teachers, but you also need house builders, plumbers, hairdressers. They are as valuable members of society as the academics. Unfortunately in our schools at the moment we don’t celebrate and value that enough. We want to celebrate those children who are creative, who are entrepreneurs, who are brilliant with their hands, as long as they have that work ethic, that confidence, that aspiration, and realize they will be valued ..that’s the bit I’m hoping this curriculum will lead to. Rather than just measuring success by a narrow string of qualifications.
There are so many opportunities to work with local employers so the children can see their skills are relevant. One of our science and technology projects involves the children working with a local businessman. We have a new school building which is lovely but very bland. The location is incredible because it’s only ten years old, but there are no trees or anything. We have worked with a local employer who makes seedlings and their plastic pots. He is working with our year 7 pupils to make the plastic pots, fill them with seeds and watch them grow. That was a fascinating project from start to finish as pupils had to design their outside space, then cost it and actually grow the plants they wanted to see in that space.
Are you optimistic about the future?
If the success of this is going to be gauged entirely in academic qualifications, then Wales will have failed its young people. My argument would be that our profession has become very good at teaching to the test. If the test changes, then our children are exposed because we have only taught them for that test. That is what PISA has taught us. So what I would argue is that if our children are well taught and they really have depth of understanding, it shouldn’t matter what the test is. They should be able to sit any test and fly it because their knowledge and ability to apply it will be solid and secure. We have become so worried about this single outcome that is the be all and end all. We have become a GCSE (with a C grade ceiling) or A level factory, just churning out students to this level . As long as everyone gets through that’s fine. That’s mediocre and that’s sad. We have lost our way in teaching and education generally. If you’re passionate, not just about your subject, but about learning, then that’s the thing we have to have back in our profession.
Any final thoughts about the new curriculum?
I am passionate about this new curriculum. And more than anything I am passionate that I want this curriculum to be about equity. I am looking for that. I want this curriculum to be about achieving genuine equity, so that my children become active participants in society and believe they have something to contribute.