This is a once in a lifetime opportunity

 By Sally Holland, Children’s Commissioner for Wales 

By now those of us reading blogposts and articles posted in the education sphere will have read very many references to the new curriculum and our own hopes for the future of Welsh education.  

And there's a reason for that - this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the way our children learn and grow in school - both in terms of their experience of traditional subjects and the growing determination to deliver well-rounded, active citizens into adulthood. 

I have my own hopes and desires for how our education system should look; here are some of them: 

Children’s rights at the heart 

I'm pleased that so many schools across Wales do a really good job of enabling children to learn about their rights. It's what my role as Children's Commissioner is all about: promoting and protecting children's rights and helping individual families who feel like their child's rights haven't been upheld by public organisations. 

But one of my main calls on the new curriculum has been to take this a step further. I want the Government, through the new legislation that will introduce the new curriculum, to place a duty on schools not only to teach children about their rights but to uphold children’s rights in all that they do. 

Teaching children about their rights is extremely important but it’s also crucial that children experience their human rights in schools, through the way children are treated every day, and through the way policies are written. Rights cover all aspects of school life, from anti-bullying, behaviour and safeguarding policies to participation, equality and inclusion. Placing a duty on local authorities and governing bodies to pay due regard to all of their learners’ rights is the only way to make this happen across Wales. 

This isn’t a fluffy add-on or nice-to-have; this is about how our children are treated by the adults in their lives. Some schools do excellent work in this field but some don’t, and at the moment there’s no duty on schools to uphold these rights, meaning some children in Wales will miss out.  

If we're serious about active citizenship, about creating a culture in schools where children feel listened to and safe at all times, and about giving children the chance to be the best they can be, I see rights as a fundamental part of those goals. 

Assessment that promotes optimum development and wellbeing 

There’s no getting away from the fact that children and young people can find assessments really stressful. Last year when I surveyed over 10,000 children and young people to set my priorities as Commissioner, testing was the biggest concern for those aged 7-11. On the back of the report lots of parents contacted us to share their children’s experiences: some children were losing sleep with stress; some were dreading going to school; some were being physically sick with worry.  

This isn’t how anybody wants to make children feel and is certainly not the stated intention of the tests. But no matter how we package testing, children aren’t daft and they know when their learning environment changes from their day-to-day lessons to one of formal assessment.  

Although the new personalized online assessments may ease the pressure for some learners, I think we really need to re-visit the aims and methods of testing and reporting of results in primary schools and be absolutely sure that it fits with Wales’s aims for education under the new curriculum 

Opportunity for all 

All children have a right to reach their full potential and we need to make sure this right is realised for every child in Wales.  The new curriculum is heralded as an inclusive curriculum but there must be a continued focus on what this means in practice, and how professionals can ensure meaningful progression for each child, including those with additional learning needs.   

Assessment should be consistent with a children’s rights approach which promotes wellbeing and which enables young people to develop self-esteem.  A significant proportion of young people feel as if they fail in the current qualification system and can lose motivation before the exams: very few young people feel motivated by a target grade of an F.  Young people leaving school without achieving GCSEs have often not been offered a meaningful alternative. Re-developed qualifications should ensure that young people do not lose motivation, and that their learning and progression will be valued.   

Children and young people being active participants 

As we move forward with education in Wales, my ambition is not for children and young people to passively experience their school years, but to play a valuable part in shaping the education they receive, and in the decisions that affect their lives. 

For learning, this means involving children and young people in shaping the content of their lessons, and where possible the way they're assessed.  

In more general terms, it's about making sure that when young people reach adulthood, their school life has given them the broad range of experiences that they require to feel confident to take on the world. A big part of this is knowing that they have a right to challenge, to influence, and to take control of their own lives. We have a real responsibility to make sure that we lay these important foundations.