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Welsh VCSEs: Weaving Worlds?

February 28th

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Welsh VCSEs: Weaving Worlds?

Could the VCSE (Vocational Certificates of Secondary Education) initiative by the Welsh government, through its focus on practical skills, be a step in the right direction to help prepare young people for the world?

From agriculture to engineering and the creative industries, 2027 will see a range of new Vocational Certificates of Secondary Education. In delivering them, educators will need to find the subtle balance between offering meaningful and relevant qualifications suiting a range of interests and diversities, but potentially limiting young people’s ambitions based on their socio-economic backgrounds or divergence.

Whether or not offering programmes in bricklaying, for instance, will empower or inhibit any one young person’s ambitions and prospects is something that only future social analysis of this initiative will reveal. The inclusion of individual, project-based learning as part of the mix is a strong indication that child-centred values run through the policy shift as a whole. For now, the vision of Cassy Taylor and her team at Cymwysterau Cymru is perhaps the most significant restoration of a holistic approach to education for a generation. It certainly repairs some of the narrowing seen in 2016 with the restriction of subjects eligible for the then English Baccalaureate (EBacc) and Progress 8 school performance measures. In 2018, HMI Emma Ing argued that the ‘open bucket’ in Progress 8 scores for schools was vulnerable to ‘gaming’ by school leaders; with schools adopting class-wide vocational qualifications which were ‘easier’ for pupils to achieve higher scores in, rather than enabling young people to select subjects and qualifications which matched their interests and aspirations.

This argument will continue to run, disrupted by both devolution and the diversity it brings to the UK, as well as the complete absence of Key Stage 2 SATS scores from the Covid years of 2021-2022 which will likely affect any monitoring and outcomes over 2026-2027 when those pupils reach 16 years of age.

But Wales’ VSCEs do offer a completely new revision of the educational landscape that the other education authorities in the UK, including the Department for Education, are likely to watch closely. Of particular interest will be the analysis on Mumsnet, the increasingly relevant accountability partner for child welfare in the UK, on how the aspirations for a ‘broad and balanced curriculum’ is being achieved.

The phrase ‘broad and balanced curriculum’ was enshrined in the opening clauses of the Education Reform Act of 1988. Colin Richards, now Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Cumbria, said that for the team working on drafting the act, this was the ‘motherhood and apple pie’ clause. Meaning it was intended to protect children from the impact of any future education policies which might lead to curricula that were restrictive, narrow, and prescriptive. Such narrowing through normality is something being widely challenged by a broad alliance of theorists, researchers, and advocates. Robert Chapman, Assistant Professor in Critical Neurodiversity Studies at Durham University draws a meaningful distinction between the economic ‘capital’ that divergence can bring (for instance the commercial value of creative education in terms of finding more profitable ways of doing things – very often seen in narratives around high-functioning autism), and the cultural and moral value of embracing ways of being and living that celebrate equality and diversity and specifically our neuro diverse nature.

A range of alternative education models, including Waldorf, Montessori and Reggio Emilia, have, for the last century, been offering holistic and integrative schooling which has embraced the ethic of a broad and balanced curriculum, not for its knowledge-based content or economic advantage, but for its developmental necessity. In this context, learning to knit and weave is not an idle skill useful for birthday presents or the foundation of coding (as rightly celebrated by Lindiwe Matlali), it is a deeply emblematic method of motor dexterity which acknowledges the integral nature of cognitive, physical and social development: Head, Hand and Heart.

Our CEO, Paul Hougham, with over a decade of experience as a teacher and headteacher, can testify to the benefits of this practice:

In Waldorf schools following a curriculum for excellence means that art and movement are not only offered as general subjects for all pupils from their primary through to secondary years, but they are also offered as remedial interventions for pupils needing to achieve balance and breathing in their development. Offering remedial art or movement in secondary education is only viable if the wider school culture values the principle of educating ‘Head, Hand and Heart’, and where the subjects in any curriculum are not just geared towards qualifications as runways to specific economic roles, but as meaningful learning opportunities for young people to be healthy and happy, to flourish in their wellbeing, and to weave worlds.

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