Lessons and recommendations for the teaching of Welsh history and citizenship based on the failures of previous initiatives

The Cwricwlwm Cymreig (hereafter, CC) was a cross-curricula initiative which aimed to develop a multi-faceted, and civic sense of Welsh identity amongst pupils which did not rely on outdated, stereotypical notions of Wales and Welshness (Smith, 2016:40). The CC was intended to be progressive and inclusive, and was designed to enable educators “to not only embrace their own interpretations and understandings of what it means to be Welsh but also to develop an international perspective and recognition of a global connectedness to other nations and cultures” (Smith, 2016:40).

However, despite the significant potential of the CC, there were serious, crippling problems with how it was implemented in practice in Welsh schools. Evans (2014) conducted ethnographic research in a secondary school in Wales to investigate the impact of the CC on pupils’ orientation to Welshness, as well as exploring teacher understanding of the CC. Smith’s book (2016) Curriculum, Culture and Citizenship Education in Wales Investigations into the Curriculum Cymreig expanded on this significantly, conducting in-depth qualitative research with pupils about their orientation to Wales and Welshness and the role played by school in inculcating this, as well as exploring teacher and head teacher’s interpretation and application of the CC. Smith’s book also incorporated a substantial quantitative element, integrating WISERD Education survey data on 1,200 pupils to explore pupil attitudes to Welshness and the role that school played in inculcating a sense of Welsh identity.

Whilst Evans and Smith both identified the potential of the CC, it was clear that there were significant problems with its implementation and delivery in schools. Both researchers found that there was a significant disjuncture between firstly, the aims and objectives of the CC and pupil understanding of Wales and Welsh identity; and second, a serious disconnect between the ideas and aims of the CC and how it was understood and implemented by both teachers and senior management.

The majority of pupils were found to have great difficulty articulating what Welshness and Welsh identity meant, despite generally expressing a sense of pride in being Welsh. When pressed, most students relied on banal, narrow images of Wales and Welshness. Much of their understanding of Welshness was rooted in the Welsh language, or in markers such as being born in the country- hardly the outcome envisioned in the design of the CC.

More damningly, pupils felt that school was not a place where they learned about Wales, Welshness or Welsh culture. Smith (2016: 57) noted that “apart from the occasional connection to Welshness in their Welsh lessons, most pupils did not think school was a place where they learned about Welsh history or culture, not to mention Welshness. Many pupils felt they did not really know the history of Wales or what made Welsh culture particularly Welsh.” Most pupils felt that they did not “have opportunities to think about the nature of culture, its role in society, and how it impacts our self-concept and interaction with others (2016:58)”. WISERD Education data (838 pupils) demonstrated that only 38.8% of pupils agreed school helped them appreciate living in Wales and 38.1% agreed school helped them develop their own sense of Welshness (Smith, 2016:59). Smith also found that a disproportionately high % of BAME pupils felt that school did not help develop their sense of Welshness, suggesting “a clear cause for concern regarding the purported inclusivity of the Curriculum Cymreig” (Smith, 2016:60).

Teacher understanding of the rationale and implementation of the CC was very poor. No teachers interviewed by Smith had read ‘Developing the Curriculum Cymreig’ (Smith, 2016:73). Both head teachers and classroom teachers (60–61) overwhelmingly believed the implementation of the CC was about incidental Welsh language use and indeed the CC was generally understood to be a language policy, rather than a ‘cultural’ one (62). This misinterpretation of the CC was compounded by the fact that ESTYN inspections also appeared to mark schools on their incidental use of the Welsh language when assessing their implementation of the CC. Teachers also complained of a lack of meaningful support in implementing the CC, both in terms of a lack of access to CPD and a lack of resources/lesson planning guidance. Teachers who did engage with social issues (such as PSA classes) noted that it was easier to discuss global issues such as world poverty than it was to discuss issues of Welshness that they felt were taken for granted by pupils and staff. The interpretation of CC as a language policy only also led to some teachers in both studies developing a hostility to what they perceived to be a tokenistic waste of time.

Evans’ (2014) fieldwork in English speaking schools similarly found that teachers did not understand the rationale for the CC, nor had they been adequately advised or supported in implementing the initiative. In practice the initiative was reduced to saying hello and goodbye or taking the register in Welsh, a tokenism which teachers later came to resent. Evans (2014) argued that ultimately school life in Wales was simply punctuated by some Welsh ‘stuff’- incidental Welsh, pictures of dragons and daffodils on the classroom walls- rather than being guided by the principles of the CC. Both Evans and Smith noted that ultimately the CC resulted in cosmetic ‘banal platitudes’ about Wales and Welshness (92), with the cc having a ‘soporific’ effect on pupils’ understanding of the subject, due to the narrow focus on conventional notions of citizenship and nationalism and the lack of attention to implementation.

Focus on Implementation

Implementation, rather than curriculum content and design has also been cited as the main stumbling block in other discussions of education and curriculum reform in Wales (Andrews, 2014), and will likely be encountered by pioneer schools as they attempt to implement the recommendations of the Donaldson Review. We therefore predict that the design and content of the new Welsh element should not be worried about as much as how it is implemented in schools. Focus on content, and tired discussions about whether or not it is ‘nationalistic’ to teach Welsh history, are red herrings. The content of the CC and Welsh Baccalaureate teaching resources were excellent, for example, and created by leading scholars in Welsh Universities, but that did not matter because ultimately schools and teachers were given very little guidance on how to implement and use these resources. This is exacerbated by a peculiarly Welsh insistence on cross-curricular initiatives that span multiple subjects rather than having compulsory subjects which are clearly dedicated to these topics (e.g., media studies, civics, history) as in other countries.

Without a focus on implementation- something which is almost guaranteed by recent decision to not make the curriculum compulsory- the likelihood is that the new efforts to teach Welsh history will end up like the CC, ‘a policy which exists on paper but not in the classroom’ (Smith, 73). To quote Smith’s overview of the problems of implementation at length:

“They were aware of the Cwricwlwm Cymreig and its goals and aims, but they were not provided with meaningful instruction on how to implement a Cwricwlwm Cymreig in their lessons. None of the teachers I interviewed had read Developing the Cwricwlm Cymreig, which partially explains why they struggled with the curriculum. However, many teachers also said they did not receive adequate support from their head teachers in incorporating the cc into their lessons. Overall, based on these interviews, secondary teachers are less aware of the Cwricwlwm Cymreig and have less support in working with the curriculum than primary teachers. The majority of primary teachers that I spoke to said they had conversations with colleagues and their senior management teams about the Cwricwlwm Cymreig.”

Smith concluded that the CC was beset by a lack of awareness (very few teachers had read the guidance); a lack of understanding of its aims/goals; a severe lack of support in interpreting it and implementing the guidance; and had not received any guidance or CPD regarding it:

“overall, we are only asked about it occasionally during our evaluations by our head teachers or if there is an upcoming ESTYN inspection.” During one interview, a teacher, who was rather irritated, asked, “If this is so important, then why haven’t they produced new guidance? Why aren’t we talking about this as often as we are about PISA and exam scores?” (75).

Evans’ research into citizenship education and the teaching of the Welsh Baccalaureate qualification observed similar issues regarding implementation. The lack of guidance provided to teachers regarding the meaning of citizenship that they had to teach was one problem, but far greater was the patchy and random delivery of the initiative. In some schools, individual teachers had great enthusiasm for the initiative and it was taught in great detail. In others, teachers viewed it as a waste of time and taught it as part of a collapsed curriculum whereby the Welsh Bac was crammed in in the summer months after ‘real’ subjects had been covered. The delivery of this initiative seemed contingent on the teacher and the amount of time they had to deliver the initiative or whether a teacher was particularly passionate about this area. In schools with less money and less time and less staff, less focus was given to the initiative as it was naturally deemed superfluous when the schools had bigger things to worry about.

Wider issues of funding and pressures impact on curriculum implementation

Ultimately, in Evans & Smith’s study, the pressures placed upon teachers by an obsessive focus on PISA results and school league tables led to the marginalization of all other elements of the curriculum. Smith argues that a ‘means to an end’ approach to education in Wales- whereby initiatives are introduced solely so pupils can pass a new test- is counter-productive when it comes to implementing initiatives such as the CC, as teachers begin to view them as box ticking exercises that they must do to pass inspections, rather than as an enjoyable and interesting exercise.

The elephant in the room in Wales is the wider context of huge cuts to school budgets (over £500 pounds per child since 2010) which has led to staff having to do far more with far less (see, e.g. Jones & Sibieta, 2019). It is therefore extremely unrealistic for the Welsh Government to expect already overworked teachers to design and implement Welsh history resources, or come up with new unique ways of teaching the subject, without more money, structure and guidance. (In many ways, our political obsession over teaching history masks the much deeper, and incredibly worrying, structural problems of the Welsh education system. Faced by a staffing crisis, continued cuts to budgets, and low morale, the strong likelihood is that the entire new curriculum will be a disaster, let alone the teaching of history.) But without making the teaching compulsory, this is exactly what they are asking, and the reality of the aforementioned situation means that the subject will not be taught, or taught patchily. Welsh Government narratives about the ‘freedom’ for teachers in implementing the new curriculum will in practice mean more work and stress for already overstretched teachers. It is unrealistic in the extreme to expect individual teachers to in practice develop their own curriculum and way of teaching the new history and citizenship curriculum. This way of thinking is not rooted in reality and seems to imagine that schools and teachers have infinite amounts of time and the resources to do this- it conjures up images of private schools of small classes and no exam pressures and infinite money and time. Teachers require clear guidance, structure, access to CPD and more funding to deliver the new Welsh element. Just like the patchy implementation of the Welsh Bac and CC, it is likely that richer schools where teachers have more time and resources may be able to deliver an innovative new curriculum, but this ‘freedom’ stems from having the money and time to do so.

In terms of implementation of the new Welsh element, some ideas and recommendations include:

· If the government want this to be taught consistently across the board it needs to be compulsory. Ideally history would be a compulsory GCSE subject. Making it non-compulsory will in practice mean patchy delivery across Wales based on the freedom and time for teachers to deliver it. In other words, it will be a lottery: some children may get unique, in depth lessons on history and citizenship, while others may get nothing because their teachers are overstretched and do not have the time to come up with their own curriculum. As Chris Taylor has noted, the new curriculum may entrench existing inequalities, and this also extends to the way things are taught. In practice when it comes to history and citizenship it will likely mean that the traditional curriculum of kings and queens will continue to be taught.

· Far clearer communication of the purposes and need for a Welsh dimension. Welsh Government must make this purpose clear to Head Teachers who must make it clear to head of department and classroom teachers. Start with illustrating the scale of the problem- the lack of political engagement in Wales; young people’s lack of understanding of place, history, etc.

· The point of the Welsh Dimension has to be emphasized, and to do this, citizenship and history has to be defined not just in education policy, but throughout Welsh Government policy: what does it mean to be a citizen in Wales? What is citizenship? Why do we need to understand our history? Without a coherent understanding of why this is necessary, it will be difficult for teachers to grasp the point of the new dimension.

· Sufficient time for teachers to undergo the necessary CPD which will enable them to understand the purposes of the new Welsh dimension.

· Sufficient support for teachers, including full lesson resources and concrete examples of how to implement the Welsh dimension and how to guide class discussions and develop critical thinking skills.

· Removal of any Welsh dimension from ESTYN inspections, as this creates perverse incentives.

· Peripatetic equivalents of challenge advisors- possibly academics-who can come into schools and mentor/advise teachers on how to implement this new dimension. This has been proposed by Martin Johnes. Again, this must be removed from the current punitive atmosphere of inspection and box ticking, and teachers cannot feel panicked or pressured about ‘conforming’ to a particular way of doing things.

· All the above will be impossible without undoing the repeated cuts to school budgets which have overloaded teachers.

Welsh sociologist. Expert in bird law. Wales home & away. Views mine only