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Speech by Jeremy Miles, Minister for Education and Welsh Language.

First published:
29 November 2023
Last updated:

Good morning. It’s fantastic to see so many people here today with so many schools and senior education leaders represented.

Thank you Chantelle and Anna for co-hosting this event. You are both making a huge contribution to education in Wales.

It is one of the real benefits of being a smaller nation that we can all meet together like this.

And over recent years we haven’t had as many opportunities to get together in person: to share ideas, to share our hopes for the future, and – naturally - to share the occasional woe!

Because it’s important for us all to know that we are not alone in this.

The explorer Ernest Shackleton, who led expeditions to Antarctica, claimed that ‘loneliness is the penalty of leadership’.  Shackleton has become something of a role model for leadership in extreme circumstances. His people-centred approach, a talent for bringing order from chaos. He even had a ship named Endurance. So perhaps some of us are feeling a resonance already?

As leaders, during and after the pandemic, you have had to navigate some pretty choppy waters, and - not to extend the explorer metaphor too far - sometimes having to do so without a route map. Making decisions in an ever-changing context, where the needs of pupils, the perceptions of parents, and the expectations from and of staff are changing and sometimes challenging.  I am sure it can indeed be lonely at times.  So I hope today is a chance to share some of that load, as well as share ideas, with other leaders facing similar demands.

But let’s take a breath to reflect on what has been achieved against that challenging backdrop.

Together we have started to roll out the new curriculum, now in every school, we’re halfway through the implementation of an enormous programme of reform to meeting additional learning needs, preparing for a new suite of qualifications, a new approach to inspection, a new approach to self-improvement, and progressing well with our Welsh in education plans. The list goes on.

And when I visit your schools and colleges, and when I speak to heads and principals one to one or in candid group discussions, despite the pressures of managing change which touches almost all aspects of school life, I see huge levels of enthusiasm and positivity about the reform journey we are all on together. And I see huge levels of creativity in responding to some of the challenges I spoke about earlier.

One of the things which has struck me since becoming education minister is that for each question we are looking to solve, there is a school somewhere that has found a solution, or at least a good part of the solution. That’s the creativity and leadership I am talking about. And so often the task is to identify where that is, and to make sure that schools elsewhere can learn from, adapt, build on that.

So I want to thank you for your continued commitment to our national mission in Wales. For the energy you bring to our work and for your dedication to teaching and supporting our learners.

And you’re doing so at a time when there is a sense that not only are schools changing as a result of deliberate policy. They are changing in different ways as a result of factors beyond school.

The most obvious still I think is the continuing effects of the pandemic. These have not gone away. Far from it.

Our very young children missed key developmental stages. Too much school time was missed by children and young people of all ages. Some children and perhaps parents too, developed a different attitude towards school, different expectations coloured by that experience, different capabilities impacted by that experience. And we know it is an experience which as so often, has had a greater effect on those with additional learning needs or who are living in poverty.

The pandemic – compounded now by the cost-of-living crisis -highlighted the inequalities that still exist in society.

As a government we resolved to focus most of our support on those groups most impacted. We invested £500 million in our renew and reform programme and we know that this was deployed very effectively by schools and colleges.

But the challenge is broader than a set of interventions at school and college level. When we read coverage of the ongoing effects on education of covid in the media, the assumption very often is that the answer to every problem falls to schools or colleges alone. But I think this is simplistic. I recognise that it will take a sustained, collaborative, and national effort to turn this around. Schools and colleges are at the heart of this, but it can only be tackled in partnership.

And the challenge of increasing attendance is perhaps one of the starkest examples of this. We need all children to be at school. That is the best thing for their education and for their wellbeing too.

We know that greater engagement with families has a positive impact on improving attendance. So the Welsh government increased our investment for family engagement officers this year to over £6.5 million.

And we invested more in the education welfare service this year, to create additional capacity. Helping the service to provide earlier support before issues escalate. And to provide more intensive support to learners with high levels of absence.

But this requires a multi-agency response if we are to really get to the heart of the issues facing our young people. This is the thinking behind the national taskforce I have brought together - to draw together experience from education, youthwork, health, social services, police, parents and beyond. Each with their own relationship with families, we need to draw on these to better understand what lies behind aspects of non-attendance – and most crucially, to identify what is working where, and what other practical actions we can take re-engage young people and get them back into class.

But in responding to the pressures around attendance, wellbeing, behaviour and other ongoing dimensions of the covid legacy, we all know how absolutely vital it is that we keep the expectations we have of our learners, all learners, high and consistent.

So, I know that you all share my concerns about the ‘learning loss’ which we know has happened since the pandemic. Thanks to your good work, Wales made welcome progress in literacy and numeracy over recent years, with signs certainly in some age groups of a narrowing in the attainment gap. But we know that the pandemic has set us back.

Estyn reports have highlighted issues around literacy and numeracy. Good levels of literacy and numeracy are of course essential.

This is why they are embedded in the curriculum for Wales as mandatory cross-curricular skills. The curriculum, with its broad offer, its expectation of high standards, is the best way to engage learners. It is the best way to encourage them to be ambitious and to realise their aspirations.

And good literacy and numeracy are indispensable for our young people to be able to access the full richness of our new curriculum for Wales. And they are absolutely key to opportunities beyond school – into employment, training and further or higher education.

It is the very least we need to ensure. So, it is clear we need a sustained national focus on literacy and numeracy.

Ensuring that everyone has the reading skills that they need to reach their potential is a matter of social justice.

Our reading and oracy toolkit, co-developed with practitioners from across Wales aims to deliver this. And we are updating it at the moment to ensure clarity on the systematic and consistent teaching of phonics, as we said we would do in set our “high standards and aspirations for all” roadmap.

Alongside this, promoting a positive ‘can do’ mindset when it comes to maths is crucial. I know you all agree we should have unapologetically high expectations for all learners. To help achieve this, we will publish a mathematics and numeracy plan. This will, amongst other things, support teachers with a national offer on professional learning for mathematical skills across the new curriculum.

And in the coming weeks we will be publishing a statistical report on national patterns in attainment in reading and numeracy to inform our efforts across our education system, using national-level data from personalised assessments. This is about Wales-wide trends across our school system so the information will not be published for schools, local authorities, or regions. I want to make sure that personalised assessments are used for just that, rather than accountability purposes – so this will be about a candid look at the national picture.

We are talking today, as we approach the end of what I am sure you will feel is a long autumn term. When I speak to heads and to teachers on visits during this term, I am always conscious that the pressures of workload and the accumulated effects of the job feel particularly acute. And building on the discussions we had earlier in the year during the industrial action, I felt it was particularly important that we could make progress in tackling workload so I was pleased to have been able to give a positive update last week on the real and tangible steps we have been able to take to reduce workload pressures. But I want you to know that this is the first instalment in that work, and we are not going to reduce our focus on this in the coming months.

And talking about the long autumn term,

I want to talk to you about our plans to look again at the shape of the school year.

When I started this job, I said that I would do my best to ensure that every decision I made would be guided by the needs of learners and their well-being, and a focus on narrowing educational inequalities.  To do this, we must be open to new ways of doing things, and not be afraid to make changes.

I have already spoken today about the many, many ways in which our schools and you as school leaders have recognised, embraced, and driven forward some of those changes.

Our manifesto, and our agreement with Plaid Cymru, committed us to look at the school calendar year and see whether it is the best way to do things – for pupils, for staff, for everyone.

We are looking at the impact of different options in relation to redistributing holiday periods and term lengths.

Evidence indicates that fatigue can be high in longer terms, and covering curriculum content comprehensively can be challenging in very short half-terms.

Importantly, many of you have told me that you believe that our most disadvantaged learners are impacted most by learning loss over the long summers.

Whatever changes we propose, the number of school holiday days and teaching days will remain the same.

We will be launching a public consultation very soon, with different proposals for how we could reshape the school year to address some of these concerns, and I encourage all of you to have your voice heard when it is published.

Before I finish, I want to address something which is uppermost in all our minds at the moment - budgets. High levels of inflation, alongside, endless years of austerity overseen by the UK government, has meant we are all working with reduced budgets. It is not easy.

You have obviously seen the in-year budget announcements we made setting out how money has had to be found across the government.

I can assure you that throughout the process, I have done absolutely everything possible to ensure we protect frontline services.

The funding that was released found from within my budget, has come from underspends from demand-led policies, such as university student maintenance support. We were able to avoid making direct cuts to school programmes or school and college funding though of course I would ordinarily have planned to use that kind of underspend to release further funds to schools and colleges later in the year.

I have got to say to you that more difficult decisions will need to be made for next year’s budget. As you know, the vast majority of school budgets come from local authorities – therefore protecting their budgets to protect your budgets is my number one priority.

I will do all that I can to support you, through budget decisions, through improvement programmes, and through collaboration.

Working with union partners, we are making good progress on reducing workload. We are looking to reform the way we issue grants, simplifying the system, streamlines reporting and providing more flexibility. And we are undertaking a review of the future direction, roles and responsibilities of education partners - all so we can support your schools to better support your pupils.

I’m delighted as well that Simon Pirotte as the new CEO of the commission for tertiary education and research will be on a panel this afternoon.  From April next year the commission will be responsible for funding, regulating, and planning post-16 education including sixth forms, to make sure our learners are able to make the right choice for them for their learning wherever they live in Wales. And fundamental to our reforms to post-16 education is the aim of encouraging collaboration across the sector to deliver for our learners.

It is through that collaboration in all parts of our education system, working together that all of us here today can support our young people best so that we build that education system that has high standards and aspirations for all which we are all committed to.

Diolch yn fawr, thank you very much.