Welcome! This time I have gone for separate Welsh and English blogs.
The reason for this is firstly because of length, and secondly and ironically, because of the numerous cultural references in my Welsh blog. I don’t believe that non-Welsh speakers will necessarily have the Cultural Capital to understand the random references to a cult S4C film from the 1980s and R Williams Parry’s sonnets. And here we are, immediately, at the centre of the whole Cultural Capital debate.
Several arguments have been brewing on Twitter recently about Cultural Capital. The fact that there is no Welsh term for this fairly new concept (new? = 1977) is maybe not surprising. However, this fact should not be misinterpreted as Welsh speakers not being interested in, nor concerned about cultural capital. Quite the opposite. The Welsh term Y Pethe has been used for decades to signify the values and traditions that are associated with Welsh life at its best. For me, Y Pethe as a term does not correspond exactly to Cultural Capital as a whole, but certainly plays an important role in defining the Cultural Capital of the Welsh-speaking world. For me, it is essential that Cultural Capital, and its Welsh-speaking cousin Y Pethe should be sitting at the top of the agenda while schools embark on interpreting the Curriculum for Wales and filling our construction which is, to all intents and purposes, an empty framework.
The great fear, which has been expressed many times from various quarters, is the possibility (the probability, or even the certainty) of differing interpretations across Wales, leading to schools offering their pupils very different curricula. The chances are that differing curricula will be taught in schools down the road from each other. This means schools will, inevitably, have differing levels of Cultural Capital. Differences are part of the deal with this new curriculum, but huge differences in the quality of provision are what we are trying to avoid at all costs. There is a huge responsibility on schools to make sensible decisions about what they want to teach, and how they teach it. This content chosen will be of the utmost importance. When, on the day of the curriculum launch, I heard a school on Radio Cymru waxing lyrical about their cross-curricular-thematic-group-work about zombies, I nearly cried.
In the Bro Edern Cluster we have been discussing the essence of a successful curriculum for a while and reading and researching widely. Followng a conversation with Gareth Rein @garein from St Joseph’s Primary School in Penarth, we looked at Cultural Literacy, a book which has had a significant impact in the United States.
This bestseller, and its companion Why Knowledge Matters, by the same author, has put knowledge, and the need for specific knowledge, firmly on the map in the USA. In the Curriculum for Wales knowledge, of course, should be part of our provision for our pupils, alongside skills and experiences. While Hirsch has gone after knowledge, I believe that teachers in Wales always need to consider the Donaldson trinity: knowledge, skills and experiences alongside each other.
But maybe knowledge should be our first consideration? Or skills? Or experiences? Or all three? Either way, the discussions about knowledge in our curriculum are vast and raise some very basic questions. Here are some initial questions:
- What is knowledge?
- What is essential knowledge?
- Which knowledge is essential to our pupils nowadays?
- Who decides what is essential knowledge for our pupils?
- Who should have the right to decide what is essential knowledge for our pupils?
- Who really has the right to decide what is essential knowledge for our pupils?
- Which role do pupils play in deciding which knowledge is essential?
- Who reserves the right to decide that the knowledge is not essential enough to be taught?
- What is the role of knowledge, in an age when everything is Googleable?
- Do successful skills derive from sound knowledge?
- Does sound knowledge derive from varied experiences?
- What is essential knowledge here in Wales?
- How does this essential knowledge differ from that the other side of Offa’s Dyke?
- Is this essential Welsh knowledge going to lead to educating parochial pupils with a lack of world view?
And here we are. The discussion about Cultural Capital here in Wales. We have our Pethe, of course, in the term coined by Robert Lloyd (Llwyd o’r Bryn 1888-1961) to encapsulate the values and traditions that are associated with Welsh life at its best. In my opinion, every school in Wales needs to create its own version of the appendix in the back of the Cultural Literacy book, in order to ensure that knowledge about Wales – its history, its people, literature and traditions – is part of every pupil’s understanding about the country that they call home.
Hopefully, the days of schools saying that learning about Wales limits their pupils’ opportunities should be well over. Let’s hope that the days of history teachers trying everything to dodge Welsh history are long gone. Which civil society does not expect its youngsters to learn about their own country? Let’s hope to goodness that schools are ready for the challenge of putting something interesting, challenging and thought-provoking together in a local, Welsh and international context. And because the responsibility for deciding on the curriculum content has been devolved to every individual school in Wales, I believe that the starting point must be a school-based version of the American list. A school’s own What Matters list. As the Bro Edern Cluster we have already started considering our list and we have enjoyed the numerous ensuing discussions that come from such a huge, but important task.
In the meantime, the discussions the other side of the border have taken an odd, absurd and unfortunate turn.
Thank goodness, there have been plenty of sensible tweets in response to the above outburst, emphasising the important role played by schools in ensuring that their pupils have a wide range of experiences, whatever their background. This curriculum should not be an attempt to stuff middle class irrelevances down the throats of everyone in sight. Reading the above tweet about the Iliad and Invictus, I am reminded of a scene in Ibiza! Ibiza! a 1980s Welsh hit film where one of the main characters walks around reciting a famous Welsh sonnet called Y Llwynog (The Fox) at the top of her voice. This is certainly not our intention for the pupils of the Bro Edern Cluster, but we must ask the question: if our pupils do not encounter the nation’s greatest poems in school, where on earth will they learn about them? This is why we need to consider our content very carefully and plan an aspirational and relevant curriculum of national and international status at school level, in order to ensure that our pupils are afforded rich cultural experiences that are not available to them elsewhere. They can go after their zombies at home.
In the Bro Edern Cluster we have the usual rich cross-section of pupils who attend Welsh-medium schools in south east Wales. And let me clarify, before going any further, this is not “rich” in the money-in-the-bank sense of the word. Our catchment, just like the majority of Welsh-medium schools, encompasses areas of juxtaposing economic fates. Yes, some may live in Cyncoed, but many more do not. Our pupils come from a cross-section of backgrounds, linguistic contexts and aspirations. More and more, the varying economic background reflects a typical city context in these trying times. Some recent stories about poverty across the city are like something that you would expect to read in a Dickens novel.
When Estyn came to Bro Edern in 2017, 31% of our pupils lived in 20% of the most deprived communities in Wales. Despite the fact that they live in our capital city, we have pupils who never go “into town”. Literally, they rarely leave their street outside school hours. Some have never been to the stadium (which is expensive), the castle (which has a Castle Key for Cardiff families for £5) nor the National Museum (which is free of charge). Going all the way to the Bay is like an adventure to unchartered territory. The Curriculum for Wales asks us to consider experiences for our pupils as a key aspect of what we do, therefore we are duty-bound as a Cluster to open every door for our pupils to take full advantage of the experiences available to those living in Cardiff.
It is for this reason that we created a Guide to the National Eisteddfod for Cardiff families. We shared the website far and wide on social media, although it was intended in the first instance for the parents of our school. The National Eisteddfod was as close as it ever will be, many of our pupils would be in Cardiff all summer, the majority of them had not been to the ‘National‘ before, and associated every Eisteddfod experience with crushing early morning defeats in the local annual Urdd Eisteddfod. Our online Guide included general excitement, but also logistics: closed roads, open car parks, local buses and reams of daily activities across the Bay. When one group of year 8 boys cycled unaccompanied all the way to the Bay for the fifth consecutive day to collect a free glass of squash from the school stand, before disappearing to see the popular group Candelas play *again*, we were delighted. Our pupils came in great numbers to their first National Eisteddfod and we realised how many doors we can open in terms of the Welsh language and its culture, a 21st century version of Y Pethe, and how keen a vast number of pupils were to be part of our culture, even in August. What our families needed were clear instructions and a warm welcome in order for them as non-typical Eisteddfod goers to attend for the first time. It was interesting to see at the end of the week, that the Welsh version of the online Guide had received over 2,000 hits, while the English version had more than 16,000 hits, an unexpected statistic, but representative of the linguistic makeup of Cardiff parents. The National Eisteddfod at Cardiff was perfect for us as a school. Local. Free. As a result, many of our least likely Eisteddfod-going pupils went a year later to Llanrwst and many sixth formers are planning this year’s pilgrimage to Tregaron. What amazing Cultural Capital – a week with Y Pethe, in August.
It may come as no surprise that we have considered our curriculum carefully. What is our vision for our pupils during their time with us? More Candelas? Or more sonnets? We need to make numerous decisions, but we have started by exploring the local, Welsh and international contexts in order to ensure that the pupils in the east of Cardiff get a richness of experiences.
We have started by creating a list of Cardiff’s most important historical events throughout the centuries. Hand in hand came those key figures in our capital’s history. We have gone a step further by discussing the histories and heroes at a national level, which form a core of essential knowledge and will be an enriching experience for all our pupils. We have started to sort the list, considering a suitable chronology and a continuum on multicoloured post its. In conjunction with our primary schools we have started to consider a mapping exercise from nursery and reception to the end of year 9, with the post its being moved regularly in order to build a purposeful and inspiring curriculum which should make our pupils glad to be citizens of the capital city of this very special country that we call home.
As we proceed, we will be sharing the latest developments: the discussions, the decisions and the perceptions along the way. In the meantime, here’s a photo of our curriculum beginnings on our meeting room wall! And remember to embark on the conversation in your school … #TalkCurriculum #joio