Curriculum for Wales : Expressive Arts : A Discussion

Curriculum change, at some point, is inevitable. Teachers, educators, and academics are always researching and testing new and innovative pedagogical methods; this makes education brilliant! Progress is key, with the vision being enhancing the children and students’ experiences who live in our classrooms day in, day out. But it doesn’t always go the way people had thought, or planned.

In Wales, curriculum change has been coming for a while. Before the new Curriculum for Wales was even a twinkle in Kirsty Williams’ eye, OECD PISA indications were that standards in Wales were in the decline. Something, it was decided, needed to be done.

Background

(If you already know the background of the New Curriculum, feel free to skip this section – also apologies for any inaccuracies written herein, I am happy to be corrected on any specific detail and information in this post.)

Jump to 2012 – the Literacy and Numeracy Framework (LNF) became a thing. It was introduced as a set of standards in literacy and numeracy that ALL teachers, not just English and Maths teachers, had to take responsibility for. There was quite little guidance (that was easy to find, anyway) and so some people felt they had to teach everything, others whatever fit into their subjects. Eventually, teachers managed to get a bit of a grip on what they were doing, and the roll out and integration of the LNF trundled along quite nicely.

Then it was decided that a complete overhaul of the curriculum was needed. Professor Graham Donaldson was drafted in to review curriculum and assessment arrangements in Wales and published his “Successful Futures” document. This highlighted (on a really basic level) that the curriculum was too narrow, and lacked creativity. It needed changing.

What followed was the development of the Four Core Purposes which were devised after consultation. They set out what it was decided that young people in Wales should develop into. I actually like the core purposes – they sound like a well-rounded person! It was said, then, that as the new curriculum began to take shape, “pioneer schools” would emerge through their sharing of good practice and innovative ideas. What (to the lowly everyday teacher as myself) seems to have happened is lots of schools were hand-picked by the government to be pioneer schools, which included piles of money thrown at them to see what they could do. They worked hard, and put together the new curriculum “content” divided into 6 Areas of Learning Experience, with the LNF (and now Digital Competency Framework / DCF) running through it all.

On the 30th April 2019, the draft documents were released for consultation with the whole of the educational community. Here’s what I think about the Expressive Arts document.

Expressive Arts (Curriculum for Wales)

At a first glance, the new curriculum documents look nice. They have different multi-toned colour schemes for each Area of Learning Experience (AoLE). The fonts even seem quite pleasing to the eye, which is odd as most things in education seem to revolve around Comic Sans… Let’s take a look inside shall we?

Since this is the 21st Century, the new curriculum has been released via the HWB network – Wales’ custom educational portal where you can access loads and loads of irrelevant stuff. Being a bit of a massive nerd, I actually opened the new Expressive Arts document as soon as I woke up on the 30th April. “It shouldn’t take too long to glance over it,” I thought, since the old curriculum document for Music fit onto a couple of pages. I glance at the top corner of my PDF reading app.

Page 1/74

Ah, man. This is going to take a while.

Over the following 2 weeks, I have dipped in and out where I’ve had time, making notes and highlighting some points that I thought were interesting. Or that were utter nonsense. There were quite a few notes.

The first thing that struck me was the fact that the people who had written the document had decided that a uniform approach should be taken when learning about, and developing skills within, the arts subjects (art, music, drama, dance, film and media). I do sort of get this, since experiencing an artistic form before going on to attempt to create your own version, or something inspired by it, is massively important. There is also the suggestion that skills should develop over time, building in complexity and competence. Great.

The thing is, that’s what happens naturally in artistic practices anyway. You have a go at something – a dance move, a difficult musical passage, an interesting piece of film editing – and you make mistakes. You learn from those mistakes, practice and refine, and present an improved version later on.

So why did this need to be written into a document?

It hit me very early on that this was not a curriculum document which was there to support teachers in what, or how, they should teach the Expressive Arts – but a justification as to why? Why has so much time been put into telling us why we should teach these subjects? It should be fairly obvious, to be totally honest with you!

After 18 pages of justification, exposition on how the Arts develops resilience and risk taking, we finally come to the “What Matters” statements. The What Matters statements are a lovely list of things which pupils should be able to do, and what they should experience, whilst learning the Arts. But, because there are 5 subjects within the AoLE, all of the statements are REALLY generic. The what matters statements are then split up into “Progression Steps.” There are 5 progression steps, spanning age ranges, meaning you could in theory completely ditch year groups altogether and have progression groups if you wanted to. The idea, as I understand it, is that by the end of each progression step children should be able to do a certain number of things, and have experienced a certain type of learning situation. Alongside the progression steps are specific skills, Elements and Forms, that the children should be able to do. Great! Finally some specific information. I quickly headed to the musical skills:

Progression Step 1 (upto age 5)

Elements – pitch, dynamics, texture, tempo, timbre, rhythm and pulse, structure

Forms – binary form, rounds

The forms I get – 5 year olds could easily work in binary (2 part) structures and rounds. But that list of elements is RIDICULOUS! Just trying to get a reception child to say timbre, let alone understand it, would be hard enough.

And it builds from here – within each progression step the level of expectation gets deeper (as one would expect). I feel though that jumping straight in with all the elements of music we already teach by the end of year 6 is a bit ludicrous.

Now, because the Expressive Arts have been broken up into 3 distinct categories “Exploring, Responding & Creating,” we are given the same information three different times, once for each aspect of the new curriculum.

THREE TIMES!

No wonder the document is so long! At this point I actually got bored of reading and criticising it and put it in a drawer and decided to make a judgement on how it stands currently. It must be remembered that this is still only a DRAFT curriculum, and what is available is in consultation (don’t worry, I will respond!) But this is what I think:

I love the fact that the arts (not just music) are being given parity amongst the other subjects. For too long have we languished in a quagmire of low to poor quality artistic resources and curriculum time, overshadowed by the “core” subjects. But does it really take 74 pages to tell us how to do it? I don’t think it does. Did it take a team of many from a range of “pioneer” schools to document what good teaching of the arts is, and always has been? I don’t think it did. Personally, I think the money spent on writing this document would have been better used funding subject specialists to really get the arts back into schools where it seems to have been lost. The vagueness of many of the statements, especially the cross-curricular links, suggests that they put things in because they had to. Statements such as:

In terms of entrepreneurship, through engaging with the creative process, learners will recognise opportunities to transform their ideas into commercial and cultural value. 

DRAFT STATUTORY GUIDANCE
AREA OF LEARNING AND EXPERIENCE
Expressive Arts (2019)

sounds like it has been written for every other AoLE document then put into all of them to show the Government are thinking about developing entrepreneurial skills. (Don’t get me wrong, I love a good project where you create and develop saleable items, but suggesting you will recognise these opportunities, pretty much with everything, is a bit beyond). If the statement had been put in somewhere and read “Learners may recognise commercial opportunities, and these should be encouraged to aid development of entrepreneurial skills,” makes more sense to me.

And it’s not the only one; the document is littered with phrases and statements which feel like they are there because they needed to fill a gap.

Overall, I profess myself disappointed with what has been published so far. We were very much promised ground breaking new ideas, and have realistically been given an amalgamation of what we are already doing. I am also disappointed with the online and social engagement of many of the so called “pioneer” schools, and government officials. The sound bite is “we will listen to your responses and take them on board,” but I haven’t been filled with confidence as of yet.

However, I really do hope I am proven wrong, and after the consultation period we can have an impact and actually produce something which is written by a national group of teachers, not just a handpicked bunch who got their hands up first.

As always, comments are welcomed. I do acknowledge the work that has gone in to the document so far; I know that people have worked incredibly hard just to get it to where it is now. But at the minute, for a nation of children and young people who need the best they can get, it’s not there yet.

Andrew

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