Wales are showing England how to care and educate children properly

By John Bishop, Managing Director, Evolve

I have twice had the privilege of hearing Professor Graham Donaldson of Glasgow University – a former teacher and head of the Scottish Inspectorate – outline his views about education and am encouraged at how closely his thinking is aligned with our ethos at Evolve.

Whilst Prof Donaldson received a standing ovation after his speech at one conference in London, the address by Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, was less enthusiastically received.

Brilliant speeches aside, the professor’s independent review of the curriculum and assessment arrangements in Wales and his recommendations are inspired. He was asked to lead a wide-ranging review by the Welsh government and gathered evidence from across Wales, the UK and wider to inform his thinking. In my view, the evidence in the Donaldson Review, which is called Successful Futures, will place the Welsh system streets ahead of that in England once all 68 recommendations have been implemented. It makes children the focus, rather than academic subjects and key stages, and considers their needs rather than those of policy makers and politicians.

I admire his compelling report, particularly for championing six ‘areas of learning and experience’, which includes health and wellbeing rather than physical education.  Health and wellbeing can no longer be taken for granted and needs to become the bedrock of 21st century education and child development.  This is something that Prof Donaldson has quite rightly identified and prioritised within his review.

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This holistic approach to learning greater reflects the needs of employers with subjects not taught in isolation and a greater focus placed on skills as opposed to knowledge.  One of the key outputs of any educational system is to prepare learners for life beyond formal schooling and becoming economically independent is central to this.  As an employer myself in both England and Wales, I continue to be frustrated by the number of applicants with excellent grades but limited employability skills, bringing into serious question the time, effort and financial investment into their academic studies.

Many of Prof Donaldson’s other recommendations are close to my heart and mirror our aims and achievements at Evolve. His report identifies four purposes for the curriculum and suggests it should be designed to help all children and young adults become:

  • ambitious, capable learners, ready to learn throughout their lives
  • enterprising, creative contributors, ready to play a full part in life and work
  • ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world , ready to be citizens of Wales and the world
  • healthy, confident individuals, ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society.

Furthermore, Prof Donaldson wants to banish the idea of having four Key Stages in schools and replace them with five Progression Steps, which are to be used simply as points of reference. He says the “transitions” between Key Stages is too much of a disconnect for pupils; that teachers and schools do not see the education system as one long process, but rather a series of blocks.

Removing these obstacles makes sense. Donaldson wants primary and secondary schools to work together more closely, so one learning journey is seamless. At Evolve we already work closely with schools in England and Wales to minimise the stress of transition between primary and secondary schools through our XLR8 programme. In previous years, the Department for Education has allocated funding to help secondary schools to address this major issue but, in their wisdom, have removed it this year.

The Welsh education system already has real strengths that have been identified by Successful Futures.  It now has the opportunity to seize this ambitious vision for a new curriculum with its implementation expected to start in September 2018.

However, a number of Welsh schools have already started to make their own preparations with many senior leaders welcoming its vision for healthier schools and healthier pupils.

Currently, 23 primary schools and several secondary schools across Wales engage Evolve Health Mentors, who are having a significant impact on staff and pupils’ health and wellbeing, an area which may soon become part of the curriculum and measured by HMI Estyn inspectors.

Evolve works closely with schools to deliver programmes that bring together mentoring, physical activity and classroom coaching.  We believe that supporting pupil health, wellbeing and personal development is key and helps drive academic success, as identified by a recent independent report by Leeds Beckett University which echoed many of Prof Donaldson’s recommendations.

More locally, our analysis of the impact of Evolve’s Health Mentors in seven schools in Bridgend shows pupil self-esteem rose by 9.5% with motivation and engagement increasing by 15%.

To ensure that this momentum continues and the true potential of Successful Futures can be realised, it is essential that schools in Wales receive a fair funding deal that is at least equal to their English colleagues.  It is amazing to see what schools in Wales are managing to achieve with extremely tight budgets. With funding cuts looming, schools in England could learn a lot about how to maximise their budgets, with the deployment of Health Mentors being just one example of this. Investing creatively in one flexible, versatile and multi faceted solution can make school expenditure work much harder across multiple beneficiary areas.

Surely now it’s time for England to show this same level of creativity at both national policy and local school level.

To view the Donaldson Report  click here