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Speech by the Education Minister Kirsty Williams.

First published:
8 February 2019
Last updated:


Noswaith dda pawb – it’s great to be here this evening, and thanks to David, Cardiff Met, and the School of Education and Social Policy for the invite.

I’m delighted to be following in the footsteps of the previous speakers in the series.

People like Anne, Mick and Graham have already made huge contributions in holding up a mirror to our education system, and identifying ways to improve.

And of course Steve – as the Director of the Department – lives and breathes the mission to raise standards for all.

We are extremely lucky to have his energy and expertise not only in government but within the system as a whole.

When he told me that he’d been in Paris last weekend, I just assumed he’d been to check in at the headquarters of the OECD to discus our education reform work with them.

But apparently there was some rugby game or other….

Setting the Scene

“We ought to have a common purpose… in regard to education the case of Wales is so special”

Sounds like something from the national mission doesn’t it?

“Common Purpose”; and that “education is special”.

I’ve often talked of our reforms being a collective, co-operative and common endeavour. It’s the only way that we will deliver real change, raising standards and extending opportunities for all.

However, that quote is not from me, or from Our National Mission.

It is the words of Stuart Rendel. Does the name ring a bell with anyone……?

They were spoken in the House of Commons on the 15th of May, 1889.

As the Liberal MP for Montgomeryshire, he was introducing what became the first piece of dedicated Welsh legislation to support public education.

That legislation – the Welsh Intermediate Education Act – paved the way for county schools, which were part financed by rates and government grants. This was the first time that public money was spent on intermediate education in Wales – a full 12 years ahead of England.

The Act specified instruction in Latin, Greek, Welsh and English language and literature, modern languages, mathematics, natural and applied science, and technical education in areas such as commercial arithmetic, agriculture and mechanics which were “suited to the needs of the district”.

I think we’d recognise those as quite broad Areas of Learning and Experience!

In answering the question posed to me tonight: “Achieving the National Mission for Education: Progress and Next Steps'; I wanted to look back and convey the historical context.

Our National Mission, and introducing a new curriculum, are significant moments in our history as a people who believe in education as an individual, community and national endeavour.

We are not tinkering at the edges.

For the first time ever, we are bringing forward our own made in Wales legislative proposals for the school curriculum.

It has been a long journey from 1889 to 2019.

Stuart Rendel was a great friend and ally of Gladstone. In fact, on that day in the Commons, Gladstone spoke from the opposition benches in favour of the Bill.

He recognised that Westminster had failed Wales by not legislating for Welsh specific issues in over two centuries.

He commented that “Wales has not pushed her claims with as much energy as she might have been justified in using.”

Now, of course, we have our own democratic parliament and government, working with our education profession to deliver the best possible equitable and excellent education system.

As I said last week in introducing the White Paper, this is the realisation of the call made in the nineteenth century by the great educationalist and progressive Elizabeth Phillips Hughes.

She was the first principal of the Cambridge Teacher College for Women and returned home to be the only woman on the committee which drafted the charter of the University of Wales.

In arguing for co-education, the promotion of women’s education and the importance of a Welsh dimension to our education system, she said that “education must be national, and must be in our own hands”.

We are now moving forward on that promise.


In delivering on a new curriculum, and new purposes for our education system – I’m often asked why, and why now?

In fact, the sparky pupils from Ysgol Calon y Cymoedd in Pontycymmer asked me these very questions during my Twitter Q&A last week.

To me, it’s pretty simple.

The essential features of the current curriculum, devised in 1988 by the then Westminster Government, is out of time with recent and future shifts in technology and development of our society and economy.

The high degree of prescription in the national curriculum has tended to create a culture where creativity has been curtailed.

There has been in narrowing of teaching and learning, with the professional contribution of the workforce underdeveloped.

It’s so old, even I was still in school.

It was before Google and before the Berlin Wall came down.

In fact, today is the 29th anniversary of the Soviet Communist party accepting Gorbachev’s recommendation that there should be free and fair multi party elections across the Soviet Republics.

A very different world.

But let me be clear.

I have no time for anyone proposing that a reformed curriculum is only about skills for the future economy and profession.

Our new curriculum will support young people to develop higher standards of literacy and numeracy, become more digitally and bilingually competent, and evolve into enterprising, creative and critical thinkers. 

It will help to develop our young people as confident, capable and compassionate citizens of Wales and the world. 

As Graham Donaldson has said, it’s not a matter of skills versus knowledge.

It’s about empowering teachers to guide pupils to become those confident citizens, whilst also acquiring connected, coherent and fundamental knowledge.

I want our youngest citizens not only to understand the world around them, but to question the world around them, and change it for the better!

Next Steps

I was pleased to sign a progressive agreement with the new First Minister before Christmas.

It confirmed that, and I quote: “Our National Mission’ sets out an ambitious action plan for education reform. It will continue to be the basis of our programme to raise standards (and) reduce the attainment gap”.

We further agreed a set of priorities that build on his commitments and my plans for education reform.

It is these which provide a clear vision for our next steps.

I will highlight some of them now and hopefully that will provide some encouragement for questions, ideas and thoughts in the next session.

Of course, I should stress that the first priority is to “design, develop and deliver a world-class curriculum” and I would urge everyone to read the White Paper and provide comments.

The draft curriculum itself will be available in April for feedback.

The First Minister has been clear to us as a Cabinet that there is an obligation on us as Government to act where we can to address disadvantage and poverty, and break the link between deprivation and destiny.

In the agreement, we have committed to “raise standards and opportunities for pupils from our most disadvantaged backgrounds through targeted support, including doubling the new PDG Access Grant and extending the School Holiday Food and Fun programme.”

But I know there is still so much more we can do, working together.

Dalton McGuinty, the former Liberal Prime Minister of Ontario – and architect of perhaps the most influential and successful education reform programme in recent years – said that:

“Government’s responsibility is to ensure that all have every opportunity to learn and to succeed. It’s in the public interest – and it’s a matter of enlightened self-interest. Government’s commitment to learning is the single-most important thing we can do for our future.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Quite simply we mustn’t write off anyone, or anywhere.

To do the opposite diminishes not only that pupil and their family; it diminishes us as an education community, as a country.

Our – my – biggest challenge is tackling the difference in attainment between children from our most deprived backgrounds and their peers.

Once these young people are under our care as an education community, we will, from day one, support them to reach their full potential.

We must never lower our expectations for any of our young people, no matter their background. It is a fundamental matter of equity and excellence for all.

I know that it’s not easy.

I know that others will look for excuses that so and so cohorts can’t be expected to benefit from a broad and balanced curriculum, that we can’t expect them to sit the same exams, that they shouldn’t have a path to the professions.

I’m sorry, but I just won’t accept it.

It’s why I was pleased last year to see the action taken in schools to switch pupils from BTEC Science to GCSE Science. A 50% increase.

And yes, it may have slanted the overall national GCSE results.

But, you know what, we can be proud that thousands upon thousands more pupils in Wales are now achieving a Science GCSE, as apposed to just BTEC.

That is raising standards and improving opportunity for all our learners, most of all those from poorer backgrounds.

And our new performance measures for this year will ensure that we have a much fuller, more sophisticated and robust analysis of school and learner progress than currently.

The updated version of the current ‘Capped 9’ points score will show attainment and progress across a whole school cohort, including the average points score for learners eligible and not eligible for Free School Meals.

The cohort for each school will be divided into thirds showing the average score for the top third highest scorers in the cohort, second third of the cohort and lowest third of the cohort. This will ensure that schools do not drive up their averages simply by focusing on a single part of the cohort. 

The success of schools in reducing the attainment gap – even eliminating the attainment gap – is not sufficiently demonstrated or celebrated in our current performance measures.

This year I hope to see a fundamental culture change.

Of course, raising attainment in our more disadvantaged communities needs an emphasis on community and parental engagement.

That’s one reason that myself and the First Minister have agreed to extend our new Community Focused Schools Initiative to offer additional support to schools and colleges to help parents and children learn together.

I am the first to recognise that we need to more in this area.

We need to think afresh about our use of public facilities, how colleges and universities can support schools, how we can integrate health and community centres within schools, how schools can be used for lifelong learning and so much more.

During a recent visit to New York, I was struck by their community school model. It’s been proven that co-location of facilities lowers school absences and parents’ time away from work. They also help address disadvantage in access to core health and social care services.

My officials are working hard – with stakeholders – to move this work forward. But we certainly don’t have a monopoly on good ideas and I would encourage anyone with ideas and good practice to come forward.

Having mentioned Ontario and New York, there is another North American connection to the next steps.

For the first time this year, Wales was one of the select few countries to participate in the Global Teaching Labs programme, run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

MIT has been ranked the number one university in the world for seven years running, and I was delighted to visit last year and negotiate Wales’s involvement in the programme.

So, last month, MIT instructors – some of the best STEM students in the world – taught science and maths projects and workshops in schools here, also contributing to professional learning and school collaboration.

My agreement with the First Minister commits us to expand undergraduate mentoring schemes in key disciplines such as science, languages and computing in our schools.

As you will know – and Cardiff Met has been successful – we have recently reformed and accredited our new teacher training programmes.

But we also need to build on this and look at fresh and non-traditional ways of supporting the current workforce, bring in new perspectives and experiences, and different routes into the profession.

Having more students in our schools inspiring pupils in subjects such as science and languages is a great way to raise aspirations and standards, but also creates a whole new potential teaching resource.

Indeed, the languages mentoring programme has been so successful that our friends in the English Government have decided to copy it and are funding a scheme in Yorkshire!

We’re always happy to help!


Of course, I’ve only highlighted a few of our next steps this evening.

We are in the middle of the biggest set of education reforms anywhere in the UK for over half a century.

Those of you here tonight who are in the middle of your teacher training programme – thank you.

You are the change. And you will be vital to the success of our reforms.

It won’t be me, or the First Minister, or any civil servants, in a classroom delivering our new curriculum and raising standards for all in our schools.

It’s your opportunity and your chance to change lives across Wales.

It is a ‘common purpose’ that we all share.

I started by referencing Stuart Rendel, and that first Welsh education legislation, some 130 years ago.

In that speech in Westminster he said that:

“the encouragement of the Welsh people in respect of learning would be the best investment the Government could make”.

That remains a clear and undiminished truth.

And our investment in teachers, and the teachers of the future, is central to the success of our national mission.

Thank You – Diolch.