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

First published:
27 June 2022
Last updated:

Thank you very much Victoria for that introduction. And I would like to say at the outset that I am pleased that it is under the reins of the Bevan Foundation that we are discussing how the education system is tackling poverty today.

The work you are doing as an organisation to shine a light on inequalities in Welsh society and the need to overcome poverty and its effects, continues to have a very significant impact in the field – and on a personal note i am delighted to have had a long-term connection with the organisation.

I know how deep your commitment goes – so thank you for all that you and your colleagues do, it has never been more important.

Our Programme for Government commitments to combat poverty and inequality are a central driver for all that we do as a government. And it shapes how we work with partners across Wales – this is a shared objective.

And as we move into the third decade of devolution I think there is a lot to celebrate in what collectively we have achieved in education. Much of this has culminated in our current reform programme. Our commitment to invest in early childhood education and care, the new school curriculum which we start to roll out from September of this year, our additional learning needs act and the boost in support that we are providing for all forms of post-16 education and lifelong learning are key to this, but you can also see in our free school meals policy, our funding for the cost of the school day and initiatives around the music service and the gifting of books – the thread that disadvantage should not hold you back in the pursuit of your potential, in the pursuit of excellence.

But if we are to create a truly excellent and equitable education system in Wales, achieving high standards and aspirations for all, there is much more that we need to do to improve equity of outcomes and particularly, to tackle the impact that poverty has on attainment.

We have made progress in this area, but the truth is that it has been too slow and it still leaves us well behind where we want to be. If you look at the 14-16 age group, for example, we know from our own data, as well as the evidence which Estyn and others provide that there has been too little progress over the last decade in closing the attainment gap between learners from low-income backgrounds and their peers who do not live in poverty.

And the disruption of the pandemic has made things worse. Research carried out by our universities with their partner schools and analysis across the sector, tell us that the wellbeing and attainment of learners living in poverty has fallen even further behind other learners during the pandemic. And we have to address this as part of the recovery process.

We have undertaken an analysis of the post-16 outcomes for those learners who have been affected by covid disruption, including looking at their progression into post-16 learning, retention of learners on courses and what qualifications they have achieved. And this gives us a baseline, over time, to understand how covid has affected those learners’ progression, and how this is impacted by other characteristics like deprivation. This understanding will help us to continue to invest in support for those learners who need it most.

Across Wales, there is far too much variation in learner attainment between schools with similar socio-economic profiles and particularly between local authorities with similar demographic characteristics.

What this means is that overall, the education system has not made sufficient progress, nor sufficiently consistent progress, to ensuring that socio-economic disadvantage does not strongly influence what learners will achieve in education and in their lives.

We cannot accept this situation, and i am determined to take radical and sustained action to address it. We can’t and won’t give up on learners who are affected by poverty – i want to see high standards and aspirations for all.

Now qualifications play a crucial role in young people progressing to their next steps and realising their aspirations, but there are other crucial indicators of progression alongside this.

So we will develop a broader range of criteria for measuring success. And these will focus on the outcomes in the lives of learners not simply inputs which we make as a system. Some of this is likely to be around employability, some of it around evidence on wellbeing, and on attainment of individual learner goals.

An early practical step I am taking, is to commission a review in this area and i have asked my colleague Hefin David, the MS for Caerphilly, to look at how education providers, provide practical work-related experiences and make recommendations around the focus, consistency and effectiveness of these. He will work with colleges but also work with a number of schools across Wales to understand what good practice can look like in provision of careers and work-related education, particularly in the context of the new curriculum.

As Minister for Education and the Welsh Language my mission is to bring about a step change in tackling the impact of poverty on attainment. I have been clear that all education policies in Wales should contribute to this mission and be evaluated by that objective, and I will be ensuring that my department turns its organisational capacity to address this policy priority and to deliver on that agenda.

I want to set out in this speech how we will build upon our current policies, where they have had success, some of the new policy developments we will introduce and how we intend to bring about the transformative change that I believe is required. 

Before I do this, I want to reflect briefly on what we can draw from the life of aneurin bevan and his experience of education. In truth his experience of formal education – in very different times of course – was not very positive. In Michael Foot’s words he ‘hated school with an abiding hatred’. At Sirhowy Elementary School he experienced bullying by no less than the headteacher and both Foot and one of his other biographers, Nick Thomas-Symonds, speculate that this may have contributed to the stammer that he struggled with for the rest of his life.

At the age of thirteen, therefore, Bevan put formal education behind him and after a brief period as a butcher’s boy joined his father and brothers underground in the coalmines of Tredegar.

Yet, he went on to a life of renown as one of the greatest Welshmen of the twentieth century – a mesmeric orator, a profound socialist thinker and the architect of the national health service. He did not allow his negative experience of education to stifle his aspirations or to suppress his lifelong love of learning.

His father – a Welsh speaker and Eisteddfodwr – had inculcated into him a deep love for reading. The riches of the Tredegar workmen’s library, established through the contributions of the miners and ironworkers of the town, was able to satiate that passion, providing what Dai Smith describes as a ‘divine revelation’ for him. Through his membership of the South Wales Miners Federation, he was able to access independent working-class education provision.

Such was his now thirst for education that in 1919, having won a union scholarship, he moved to London to study together with Jim Griffiths and other figures of the south Wales coalfield at the Central Labour College that had been established by the South Wales Miners Federation and National Union of Railwaymen. And from there he emerged as the committed socialist propogandist destined for the political career that soon followed. His learning, however, continued through his life as a voracious reader and a lover of the arts, all shared with his wife and comrade Jennie Lee who would of course herself go on to found the Open University.

I have dwelt on Bevan’s experience because there seem to me to be some key things we can learn from it in the context of what we are discussing today. We must ensure that the experience of our learners from an early age is a positive one through the curriculum that we offer them, the teaching which underpins this, through attention to their wellbeing, the aspirations and ambitions we encourage them to have and the leadership that facilitates all of this, so that the talents of future Bevans are not lost.

We must also ensure that learning continues beyond the age of 16, not just for those who have succeeded previously but also for those, like Bevan, who have not fulfilled their potential. The lifelong learning which enabled him to eventually fulfill that nascent ability, should be available to everyone and it should be at the heart of our communities as it was in Tredegar.

These eight areas – early childhood education and care, learning and teaching, the importance of community, health and wellbeing, the curriculum, aspirations, leadership and lifelong learning, are central to plans we are developing to achieve high standards and aspirations for all.

We will bring them together in a whole system approach that embraces early childhood education and care, primary and secondary education and all forms of post-16 education, training and lifelong learning. All underpinned by an approach to education which reflects and draws on its community and aligned to policy developments taking place in other key areas such as health and the economy. This is the Well-being of Future Generations Act in action.

And by doing this we will ensure that we never give up on our learners, whatever their background, through supporting their journey from pre-school to lifelong learning, recognising that whilst some make steady progression through these phases, others do not and need to be re-engaged, and that some may not engage until much later in the process. This is why I talk about a ‘nation of second chances where it’s never too late to learn’.

I am also convinced that the plan should be co-constructed, co-owned and jointly delivered by all partners in the education system. We need what the Canadian educationalist Michael Fullan has called a ‘guiding coalition’ that brings together all the energies, talents and leadership abilities within our system in common purpose and resolve – this is our national mission. We will work with the sector to develop this guiding coalition over the coming months.

We cannot succeed in this endeavour, however, simply through having a sustained, unified and collaboratively led approach. We also need the right policies, which are evidence-informed, implemented with rigour and with respect for the agency that we want our educational professionals to exercise.

In my statement in the Senedd back in March, I began to set out what some of these policies will be and I now want to use the rest of this speech to focus on others, and to make some announcements on how we will take them forward.

Using the Pupil Development Grant in an effective way will be key in supporting this work and we have already started to work with our partners in local authorities and the consortia to align the use of the PDG to the eight policy areas I referred to earlier.

And ensuring that children have the best start to their educational development is critically important. We need a holistic, single system for early childhood education and care. The early years are a key point for the cognitive, social, physical, communication, emotional and behavioural development of all children and we know that significant disparities exist in these areas for children from low-income households.

We are extending the childcare offer, investing more in flying start and extending its reach, increasing spending on speech, language and communication development through the talk with me delivery plan and providing increased support for parenting programmes. In total £805.5 million will be invested in these programmes between 2022-23 and 2024-2025.

Building on this, and working with Plaid Cymru, from September 2022 we will start rolling out our universal primary free school meal offer.

The biggest influences on the success of learners are the quality of the learning and teaching they experience and, particularly for our younger learners, the environment that they experience at home and community level.

I have previously set out some of the actions we are taking to support our schools becoming community focused and I am committed to continuing to invest in community schools, co-locating key services, and securing stronger engagement with parents and carers outside traditional hours. We are also committed to exploring reform of the school day and year so that school time can be best used to support all our learners, especially those living in poverty, including access to enriched learning opportunities which better off learners take as a normal part of growing up.

It is also essential that we continuously improve the quality of learning and teaching that learners from low-income households’ experience as we know that this has a profound influence on their progress. I am concerned that schools in some of our most disadvantaged communities sometimes struggle to recruit and retain the teachers they want. I want to look at how we can incentivise teachers – including those who are recently qualified – to teach in the schools which serve our most disadvantaged learners, so I am commissioning some initial research on this, with a view to then launching a pilot scheme to test some approaches.

It is also crucially important that we offer educational professionals – teachers, lecturers and support staff – a range of professional learning opportunities to support their work in tackling the impact of poverty on attainment. I want to now tell you about some of the actions we will be taking to achieve this.

Over the next five years we will provide over £0.5 million to enable our school improvement services to offer a no-cost, digitally based professional learning programme to education providers focussed on how to raise the attainment and support the wellbeing of learners from low-income backgrounds. This will be launched in January 2023 and will offer professionals the very best evidence-based knowledge.

Much of that knowledge will be drawn on well-respected high-quality research evidence from the education endowment foundation. And I am also pleased to announce that we are establishing a strategic partnership with EEF.

As part of this we will ask them to adapt their teaching and learning toolkit which provides professionals with accessible evidence on effective learning and teaching strategies, to our distinct context in Wales, and to make it available in both Welsh and English. We will also ask them to share with our schools the expertise they have developed on how best to implement the toolkit and to monitor its impact.

We plan to work with EEF to develop case studies from Welsh schools where the strategies described in the toolkit have been used to good effect. I hope that you agree that this partnership with such a highly regarded and experienced organisation in this field is exciting

Alongside this, as part of the rich professional learning opportunities that we are offering our teachers, we have developed with our higher education institutions a National Masters in Education Programme. I have now asked universities to work with us to develop a discrete pathway within the masters which is focused specifically on equity in education which will include a module focused on tackling the impact of poverty on attainment. This is going to be available from 2023.

We know from international evidence that we need to improve the speech, language and communications skills of our learners, including their reading skills. For Aneurin Bevan the world of books and reading played a crucial part in his journey, and we know that being an avid and skilled reader is so important in developing the literacy that is a fundamental basis for progress in education.

The reading and oracy action plan which I announced last autumn sets out our priorities in this area. I have recently announced an additional £5 million in funding for reading programmes across Wales which will provide a book for every learner alongside a targeted scheme of reading support, focusing on early years and disadvantaged learners.

As part of working towards a whole school approach to reading and oracy we are also expanding a project which will support over 2,000 children to improve their language, communication and reading skills. The project which is led by Bangor University, provides 7-11 year olds with an intensive and interactive ten week language and literacy programme in Welsh and English, either in or out of the classroom. It was originally launched to support learners with remote learning and the programme will now be expanded to help improve the literacy skills of learners in Wales. This will include rolling the project out to more schools, expanding the project in welsh and providing extra lessons for children and parents to learn together at home.

Finally in relation to learning and teaching. The international evidence indicates that many of the countries that have the most equitable education systems are those that adopt mixed attainment learner grouping for as long as possible – usually until the age of 14/15 when they begin to study for national qualifications.

This commitment to mixed-attainment teaching can raise overall learner attainment and avoid the detrimental effects of setting, which often results in learners from low-income households being placed in the lowest groupings. Unsurprisingly, researchers have found that this suppresses the aspirations and attainment of these learners.

We know that setting and other forms of attainment-based learner grouping is used widely in our system in Wales, but we lack robust research evidence on this and its effects. So I will commission leading experts in this area to undertake an initial review of evidence in relation to Wales. The review will focus particularly on the extent to which mixed attainment teaching and learning is already taking place, what the advantages are but also what the challenges are and what professional learning would be required for educational professionals.

If we are to move in this direction we will need to listen carefully to the views and experience of our children and young people, and this is something that we want to develop in Wales more generally, in line with our commitment to the unconvention on the rights of the child, and with partners including the children’s commissioner for Wales. I have asked my officials, to develop guidance for education providers on how best they can listen to, act upon, and feedback to learners from low-income backgrounds.

Of course, all these considerations need to be at the forefront of the momentous reform we are undertaking in implementing our new curriculum for Wales. It is designed and intended to achieve higher standards and aspirations for all, and that absolutely includes those whose attainment is impacted by poverty. Schools can design their own curricula with the needs of their own learners, parents and carers, and communities in mind.

To achieve this and really gain the benefit of our reforms, we have encouraged schools to work together in their local cluster, including between primary and secondary schools. Before the end of this month, I will be publishing a direction which will require schools to work with schools outside their local cluster, to ensure that we build and share effective practice across Wales. My next step will be to set out our national monitoring programme to understand learner progress at all stages, in a way that supports high quality teaching and learning and does not encourage practitioners to ‘teach to the test’.

I want to turn now to the role that post-16 education and lifelong learning will play in our whole system approach. We have a proud tradition of adult and community learning in Wales and there is a lot that our further education sector, work-based learning providers, local authorities and universities already do in broadening access to all learners, including those who have not reached their potential at the age of 16. 

In response to the disruption caused by the pandemic for learners moving from pre to post-16 education, we have introduced a post-16 transitions plan which has been supported by £45.9m of additional funding from 2020/21 through to 2022/23 and has encouraged good collaboration between providers.

But there is much more that the post-16 sector can do to tackle the impact of poverty on attainment. In my oral statement I made clear our intention to expand the work of the seren network so that it reaches more socio-economically disadvantaged learners.

In the bill that is currently before the Senedd, we are placing a legislative duty on the commission for tertiary education and research to expand equality of opportunity and improve access, retention and success for all post-16 learners including from underrepresented groups. And I have asked my officials to build upon initial work on tracking learners who were eligible for free school meals at the age of 16 so that we can monitor their progression through post-16 education.

This will include sharing data on free schools meals eligibility with UCAS so that universities, including our own universities in Wales, can better track the progress of learners who are, or have previously been, eligible for free school meals and take that into account in their offers.

My aim was to enable this to be available for clearing this year and then for ongoing recruitment processes thereafter – and I can confirm today that these arrangements will now be in place for clearing in August. This will be an important tool in widening access to higher education.

We need to listen to and understand the experiences of these learners and we and HEFCW have been working with a wide range of stakeholders, and have recently published a draft set of principles for post-16 learner involvement and student partnership. One of the areas of concern that learners often highlight are their health and wellbeing needs. The further education sector has worked together to respond to these needs, and we have provided funding to support this collaboration. I can now announce that we will allocate an additional £4m in this financial year, to support wellbeing in the further education sector.

You will see in our programme for government our commitment to offer both pre- and post-16 learners a wide range of qualifications and qualification pathways of equal quality, value and esteem. This will include expanding the range of ‘made in Wales’ vocational qualifications that meet the needs of our economy. Working with Plaid Cymru, I recently announced a review of vocational qualifications that will report back in the summer of 2023.

Vocational qualifications should be available to all learners to meet their learning interests, needs and aspirations. I am confident that such qualifications will enable us to engage a wider group of learners, including those from low-income backgrounds. We also need to ensure that all qualification pathways should have at their core the skills of literacy, numeracy and digital competence.

We will also consider how we can provide more intensive independent careers advice to learners from low-income backgrounds, as part of the offer that we should make to all learners in relation to these wider qualification pathways.

We will provide a wider range of high-quality and high-status options for post-16 learners including access to the world of work. To this end, I want to ensure that we offer them the best possible advice and support for the choices they make. The work which I have asked Hefin David to lead for us will make an important contribution to delivering this.

I am committed to Wales being a ‘second chance’ nation that provides lifelong learning opportunities and strong adult and community learning provision. We will expand lifelong learning opportunities allowing learners who previously have not achieved their potential to get new skills and competencies for example using personal learning accounts.

I believe that family learning should be an important part of this provision and should build upon the range of parenting programmes we are funding and the importance placed on strengthening the home learning environment for school-age learners. Our community focused schools work will help to facilitate this, and we also know that excellent models exist in further education such as the families learning together programme, developed by Cardiff and Vale College. To inform our work in this area, I will be asking the Learning and Work Institute to build upon some initial work they have done on family learning and to consider the context that exists post-pandemic.

It is now essential that we integrate all of these policy developments into a whole system approach, supported by an implementation strategy that will enable us to achieve sustained momentum to the end goal – of creating the excellent and equitable education and lifelong learning system that is our ambition for Wales. As Michael Fullan argues ‘moral purpose accompanied by powerful pedagogy is unstoppable’.

We will progress this work relentlessly. We have, therefore, agreed with Estyn that they will increase their monitoring of the work of schools, school improvement services and post-16 providers in this area, so that we can have independent evaluation of the progress we are making.

And I want to ensure that educational leaders who have already achieved success in this area are able to help us support leaders who have begun the journey to achieve high standards and aspirations for all but who face challenges. I will be identifying a small group of these leaders who we will invite to work with us as attainment champions and who can help us share insight and best practice. This will include a pilot to provide peer-to peer support that can be offered to senior school leaders working in the most challenging socio-economic situations.

It was Aneurin Bevan’s view that ‘if freedom is to be saved and enlarged, poverty must be ended’. In these turbulent times, that message is as relevant now as ever. I believe and i am sure that you do too – that by overcoming the insidious impact that poverty has on attainment, the education system can play its full part on the journey to the fairer Wales that we all want to see. Achieving high standards and aspirations for all.

Thank you for listening. I look forward to your questions and to working with you in the years to come to achieve these ambitions. Diolch yn fawr.