Work is needed to realise the long-term benefits and track on-going costs of the new Curriculum for Wales
The Welsh Government has worked well with the education profession to co-design the new curriculum, but it was initially developed without assessing its direct or opportunity costs.
It is difficult to accurately calculate the cost of curriculum reform, however, current budgets suggest that direct expenditure may be at the high end of, or more than, the Welsh Government’s 2021 estimates.
The Welsh Government has been undertaking a programme of major education reform over the past decade or so, central to which is a new Curriculum for Wales. The curriculum will allow each school to flexibly develop its own curriculum according to local needs, within certain parameters.
Our report found that the Welsh Government did not assess the direct or opportunity costs when it began to develop the new curriculum. In 2021, it estimated that developing the new curriculum cost £159 million between 2015-16 and 2020-21, although it recognised this total does not include some costs. It also anticipated direct costs of £198.5 million between 2021-22 and 2030-31.
Recent Welsh Government budget papers suggest that spending is likely to be at the high end of, or more than, the Welsh Government’s April 2021 estimates. Schools also face substantial opportunity costs, estimated by the Welsh Government at £263 million between 2021-22 and 2025-26.
The Welsh Government worked well with schools to co-design the new curriculum and identify the skills and knowledge required to achieve it, although the COVID-19 pandemic has affected schools’ ability to prepare.
Last year, the Welsh Government announced a change to the implementation timetable reflecting the pressures schools have faced. All primary schools will be teaching the new curriculum from September 2022. Nearly half of secondary, middle and special schools plan to introduce the new curriculum in September 2022.
Despite the disruption, the pandemic has led to some changes that have benefitted the developing curriculum. For example, suspending the curriculum in 2020 allowed schools to be more experimental, it resulted in schools giving priority to pupils’ health and wellbeing, and teachers’ and pupils’ digital skills have also improved.
The Welsh Government and Qualifications Wales recognised that qualifications would need to change to reflect the new curriculum. Qualifications Wales has made some decisions about the broad shape of GCSEs and detailed work is underway on these and other qualifications in time for the first award of new qualifications in 2026/27.
Looking beyond September 2022, key risks that the Welsh Government is alert to but will need to continue to manage include:
- financial and workforce pressures that could affect schools’ ability to realise a high-quality new curriculum;
- ensuring the new curriculum supports the Welsh Government’s aim of reducing inequalities in education;
- ensuring that new qualifications are aligned with the new curriculum and support progression to the full range of post-16 options;
- ensuring greater engagement with parents, carers and learners; and
- clarifying what information will be available to support a new approach to self-evaluation, improvement, accountability and transparency.
Our report makes six recommendations to the Welsh Government to help ensure the new Curriculum for Wales achieves its intended impact and provides value for money.
The new Curriculum for Wales represents a considerable change for learners, parents, carers and the education profession and, while the pandemic has understandably affected the timetable and schools’ preparations, September 2022 will mark a major milestone. The spirit in which the curriculum has been developed is good to see, but future policy development on this scale needs to give more attention to the likely costs of implementation to provide for an earlier and fuller assessment of value for money.
Some significant work is still needed in key areas to deliver the full benefits of curriculum reform and the Welsh Government will need to keep track of the substantial ongoing costs of the reform programme to support wider scrutiny.