Schools have been told to put the new curriculum for Wales at the top of their agenda, with the biggest change in education for a generation now just two years away.

Telling schools to prioritise the reforms Wales’ chief inspector of education and training, Meilyr Rowlands, said the changes could take at least a decade to implement and it is vital standards don’t fall in the process.

Estyn's chief inspector for schools, Meilyr Rowlands
Estyn's chief inspector for schools, Meilyr Rowlands

Publishing his 2018-19 annual report today, Mr Rowlands, head of education watchdog Estyn, said: "We’re in the middle of significant, historical change in Welsh education. Momentum has increased recently, bringing better cooperation between national, regional and local education organisations.

“Now that the new Curriculum for Wales is published, all schools must think seriously about what this new curriculum means for their school community and how they can improve teaching and learning.”

The new curriculum will be taught in all schools up to year seven from September 2022. It will then roll out year by year until it includes Year 11 by 2026.

Traditional  boundaries between subjects are scrapped and there will be instead six new Areas of Learning and Experience (AoLEs). The first overhaul of the syllabus in over 30 years it means schools will design their own curriculum.

In his report Mr Rowlands warned: “During a period of structural reform, it is important that the quality of education and standards do not slip.

“Transforming a whole education system is a complex and long-term undertaking, and one that is estimated to take at least a decade.”

While progress has been made with groundwork for the changes schools must “grasp the opportunity” to focus on longer-term planning.

“A stage has now been reached when all schools need to think carefully about what the new curriculum means for them.

“The newly published Curriculum for Wales offers an over arching structure for curriculum planning, but the responsibility is on each school to design its own curriculum to provide what their learners need to thrive in the modern world.”

Mr Rowlands acknowledged schools cannot do this alone saying the education system as a whole must work together to support them bringing in the reforms.

The 190-page report highlights work in several schools which are already trying new approaches to the curriculum but Mr Rowlands warned: “Some longstanding challenges remain. Too many secondary schools are still causing concern and the ‘poverty gap’ between disadvantaged learners and their peers has not closed over recent years.”

While attitudes in most primary schools is increasingly positive about the changes there is less appetite in secondary schools, especially those not pioneering the new curriculum, his report warns.

“Secondary staff are generally positive about the aims of the new curriculum, though uncertainty around the nature of future qualifications and accountability measures means that secondary school leaders are generally more cautious about preparing for changes to the content and organisation of their curriculum.”

* Standards good or better in around eight in 10 of the 188 primary schools inspected in 2018-19 and one in 10 judged the highest excellent.

* Standards  good or better in nearly half of the 29 secondary schools inspected in 2018-19 but “the proportion of these schools causing concern remains a challenge”.

* Improved performance in independent special schools and pupil referral units  with examples of excellence for the first time for many years.

* Literacy standards in primary and secondary schools overall are broadly similar to those three years ago. Progress in providing enough challenge in literacy teaching to meet the needs of more able pupils, has been limited.

* Numeracy provision for numeracy has “improved a little” in the last two years. It is judged to be “at least good” in around eight in 10 primary schools and nearly half of secondary schools.

* Pupils’ behaviour in most primary schools is very good.

* Just over one in 10 secondary pupils do not feel safe at school as a result of frequent poor behaviour from other pupils or bullying.

* The performance gap between the 18% of Wales’ pupils eligible for free school meals and their peers has remained broadly the same for more than a decade.

Launching his report Mr Rowlands admitted it was hard to quantify how ready for the new curriculum schools are now. Estyn will be temporarily halting inspections this September in order to visit all schools in Wales to assess how they are progressing implementing the reforms.

Away from the new curriculum his report also shows recruitment and funding are ongoing problems for schools.

Numbers of students recruited to initial teacher education programmes for primary teaching programmes in Wales have fallen 10% in the last five  years at the same time as recruitment to secondary programmes fell 40%.

* Cwmtawe Community School in Pontardawe works with partner primaries to help year seven teachers plan lessons to build on ICT, communication and creative skills from primary.

* Pupils in Ynysowen Community Primary School in Merthyr Tydfil evaluate the curriculum each week and “contribute imaginatively” to planning the following week’s  work which “motivates pupils to engage in a wide range of tasks”.

* Teachers and pupils at Cardiff’s Ysgol Treganna work together before planning new topics to decide what activities to do as part of their chosen theme, and how they want to arrange their classroom to reflect that.”This means that teachers plan a comprehensive and progressive curriculum, and create a rich and stimulating classroom to reflect the pupils’ contributions”.

* Ysgol Bryn Tawe in Swansea has set up a pupil/teacher teaching and learning committee to broaden cultural knowledge which has led to stronger emphasis on Welsh history and culture across the curriculum.

* Bishop Hedley High School in Merthyr has launched a programme to help  pupils build stronger life skills and offered “new opportunities for them to learn in different ways”.

Several subjects have seen recruitment fall by 50% or more, including chemistry, ICT, mathematics, modern foreign languages, art and physics. The most recent figures for student teacher recruitment from StatsWales  show that numbers have fallen again in around half of subjects.

On funding the report notes that reserves held by primary schools have been around £40m in recent years while reserves held by secondary schools have fallen.

At the end of the 2018-2019 financial year secondary schools in Wales were in overall deficit by £4.4 million.

The report noted: “All schools inspected this year report the need to make difficult financial decisions due to reduced budgets. Often these result in increasing class sizes or a loss of learning support assistants.”