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If you’re going to change the curriculum, you have to set the context in terms of the implications of those changes, says Professor Graham Donaldson, an instrumental education consultant with over 40 years’ experience in the education sector.

This event was held on Thursday 19 May. The recording is available below.

In this Nesta talks to… Helen Wales, Nesta Cymru’s Mission Manager for our fairer start mission, and Professor Graham Donaldson examined the kinds of change required to transform the curriculum for Scotland and Wales.

Sharing his experiences of reshaping curriculums in the devolved nations, Professor Donaldson explored what we need to do to empower teachers and meet the needs and aspirations of students. In particular, issues such as curriculum design, the changing role of teachers and assessment and accountability were discussed.

Reviewing the existing landscape for the curriculum within the context of previous waves of reform, Professor Donaldson highlighted the importance of the changing relationship between schools and the policymaking process.

In 2014 he was tasked with examining the Welsh curriculum and assessment system; his report called for a more dynamic approach that directly meets the needs of children. In Scotland, he has played a significant role in educational development and was influential in building the Scottish Government’s curriculum reform programme, Curriculum for Excellence, which seeks to place learners at the heart of education.

So what kinds of challenges exist with regards to implementation within the education sector? Professor Donaldson argues that legacy is an issue. In Wales, the scale of reform means that the government has placed a lot of faith in the teaching profession. Another major problem is sustaining reform. The greatest challenge is to not lose the narrative behind what drove the original reform, especially when there's a lengthy period between writing reforms and putting them into practice. As reform often gives teachers more agency, it is important to give them an active role in shaping legislation, as well as ensuring there is enough teaching capacity within the system.

"The biggest single issue in radical reform is actually to sustain it, is to see it as a long-term endeavour, not something that happens as a one off."

Professor Graham Donaldson

Professor Donaldson also shared his key lessons from curriculum reform in Scotland and how it influenced his approach in Wales. Scotland is at the forefront of curriculum development, with an approach that focuses on both student development and educational achievement. However, concerns over whether enough was being invested in building the capacity of the teaching frame resulted in the report Teaching Scotland’s Future. Its recommendations were moving from teacher training to teacher education and involving the university sector more directly through good professional development for teachers.

Wales has taken inspiration from the report with its own overview – Teaching Tomorrow’s Teachers by Professor John Furlong. His review of teacher education showed huge differences in how teacher pre-service education is created and delivered in Wales. In addition, the National Masters in Education was established by higher education institutions across the country to create a single masters which can be delivered universally.

Curriculum development, though improving with these reforms, also requires transformation with regards to assessment. Professor Donaldson cites the UK’s reliance on examinations as the be-all and end-all of student achievement as negative and failing to acknowledge students’ overall performance. The pandemic exposed this fragility, as it greatly affected the qualifications process by showing the UK was too dependent on examinations in comparison to other countries. Examinations are a mode of assessment, so creating a new approach requires reviewing which forms of assessment are valued the most.

"If we’re trying to develop a learner-driven, child-centred curriculum but we have learner-driven child-centred teaching methods and a one-size-fits-all qualification and assessment system that is really misaligned with the vision and the heart of the curriculum that we're trying to put in place."

Helen Wales

The opinions expressed in this event recording are those of the speaker. For more information, view our full statement on external contributors.


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Professor Graham Donaldson

Professor Graham Donaldson (he/him) has spent over 40 years in education and has worked in schools, universities, local and central government. A qualified teacher of history and social science, he taught and occupied senior local positions in Scotland before working at the national level as a curriculum developer and evaluator. Donaldson Education Services Ltd, was formed in 2014 and has undertaken work for Tapestry Education, the Welsh Government and the OECD. It provides educational consultancy on education with a particular focus on curriculum development, assessment, teacher education and educational evaluation and inspection.