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Speech by Jeremy Miles, Minister for Education and Welsh Language

First published:
18 February 2022
Last updated:

Jeremy Miles, Minister for Education and the Welsh Language, met headteachers on 17 February to re-visit the importance of the new curriculum, describe practical support in the pipeline, and join a discussion with Owen Evans, HM Chief Inspector of Education and Training, Estyn.

Thank you for joining this session this afternoon. I know that finding time to be at an event like this, however important is not always easy. But let me start this afternoon by acknowledging the leadership you have all provided in responding to the pandemic over the last two years.

Your contribution has been - and still is - absolutely critical in keeping our learners learning and in supporting their well-being. And of course in supporting the well-being of your entire school community, from teachers and assistants and the wider workforce. You have had to navigate, under pressure, a new range of competing demands and novel challenges.

And the situation obviously still remains challenging. Between the ongoing measures to protect learners and staff, as well as the cumulative impact of the last two years, you are leaders in a system which is very much still under stress, even though we all recognise that we want to try and restore something approaching greater normality as soon as we can. Your dedication in those circumstances is inspiring and on behalf of the children and the people of Wales, I want to thank you.

High standards and aspirations for all

I am conscious that one of the consequences of coming in to my role during the pandemic is that there hasn’t been a particularly natural opportunity to share my thoughts with you more broadly on our reform programme. There have been important decision points when I have tried to set the choices I have made, in context. But today, whilst very much focussed on the practical steps ahead and how we can help you, I want to share some of those broader thoughts with you briefly.

Like many of you I imagine, education changed my life. I loved school, I had inspiring teachers, I could name them now, who encouraged me to read widely in Welsh and in English, to expand my horizons, who challenged me, who helped me understand how my community, my country, its history, its culture, its language, shaped my world, and what part I had to play in it. Who encouraged my aspirations, and who nurtured the confidence in me to overcome the obstacles that might lie ahead. I came from a pretty ordinary working class background and I had in many ways the kind of education we all want for our young people. And that is what has motivated - and in fact enabled - me to be a member of the Senedd today.

And I know our new curriculum for Wales can deliver that for the next generation. I want to see an education system which offers high standards and aspirations for all. We are all acutely conscious that the economic circumstances of individual learners plays too large a role in their experience of school, their aims and their achievements. And we are certainly conscious of the differential impact of the last two years on our learners.

We also know that whilst some of the answers lie in our hands in schools, this is rooted in realities outside the life of the school.

As a government, we have sought to support our most disadvantaged learners through free schools meals, pdg access, extending digital opportunities in schools, alongside having a clear focus on reaching those pupils who might need more support. When we design initiatives such as Seren, Taith and the young person’s guarantee.

So as a government, we are demonstrating our firm commitment to raising aspirations and supporting the ambitions of all our learners.

But we need to do more than mitigation.

Over the coming months, I will bring forward a series of further initiatives for improving equity in education, for getting to grips with the effects of socio-economic disadvantage in our schools - a relentless focus on raising the aspirations and attainment of all our learners. Making it a clearer part of our national mission.

We know that one of the key factors that can make a difference to the aspirations of the children who face the greatest barriers is good quality teaching - teachers who listen to them and their experiences and work with them to raise their ambitions and aspirations.

And this takes us back to the purpose of this event. The potential of the new curriculum to be transformative for all our young people. Because at its heart is a focus on what we want for our learners, what they want for themselves, and what we as a system can do to remove the barriers in their way.

And the new ways of working with our learners in the new curriculum as well - more tailored to their needs, cultivating the imagination, the curiosity, the ability to connect and to question. This provides a very important tool to deliver high standards and aspirations for all.

Why a new curriculum?

So I want to thank you for your ongoing commitment to curriculum reform.

If I have learned anything from the experience of the last two years – it’s that you, the leaders and teachers of this country, understand what our learners need to reach their potential.

As we ready ourselves for this generational change, and as we look at the months ahead, I am sure that you all feel at different points in the journey. I know that there are some of you who are raring to get going now, while others may be looking at September and thinking, “I don’t really feel as prepared as i would like to be; I’m struggling for time, and i have already got a lot on my plate”. And every point in between.

And after the two years we’ve just had – that is completely natural.

But my message to you all today is this: it is not too late; and most importantly, you are not alone in this. I do not underestimate this challenge, but nor do I underestimate your ability to make it work. And what I want to talk about this afternoon, is how we do it.

1) Making the difference for every learner (why does this matter?)

Firstly, I want us to keep returning to the key principles that make this curriculum a once in a generation opportunity. At the heart of that are of course the four purposes of the curriculum.

Those purposes are central to empowering you as professionals and giving you the flexibility to do the best by your learners. And let’s keep reminding ourselves why these purposes, why the curriculum are so important:

Firstly they support aspiration and ambition

You all know how important raising aspirations is. It is absolutely central to my vision in tackling the impact of poverty on attainment, and setting high standards for all.

The Curriculum has got to be relevant and accessible to every single one of our learners, to engage and support them to have high aspirations for their education and future careers. The new Curriculum is a great opportunity to achieve this. 

Secondly it’s about challenge and support

We want to raise the bar for learners: with a curriculum that’s as rigorous as it is challenging.

By focusing on what really matters in learning, why it matters, and what it means to make progress in that, we will raise standards in Wales. This is fundamental: we must challenge every learner in their areas of strength, and support them in their areas for development.

Thirdly it’s about self-confidence and wellbeing

Only when learners, and staff, are happy, confident, and motivated in their teaching and learning can they achieve their best. Our young people have faced massive challenges, I don’t need to tell you that, and the legacy of this will be with us for some time. They already face more profound demands on their wellbeing from society at large than I did when I was in school. Providing an environment in which that can be addressed is a fundamental aspect of the new curriculum.

Fourthly it’s about skills to make the most of life

We know that lifelong learning is integral for a modern and successful economy and learners need to be prepared now for that continuous learning and change.

We must give our learners the skills they need to flourish. Critical thinking, problem-solving and digital competence - these are just a few of the skills that learners must learn.

Fifth, it’s about learning fit for every individual

We all know that there are young people that have, for whatever reason, disengaged from education. We want a curriculum that meets every individual learner’s needs: that feels relevant to the pupil who’s hard to engage, and so fosters that connection and awakens that interest, that recognises their progression and the knowledge, skills and experiences they need.

This is of course central to the flexibility and agency offered by the Curriculum for Wales: ensuring every school has ownership of their curriculum, but within a national approach that secures consistency across the country.

Aspirational, challenging, future-facing, and learner-focused: that is what we want for our learners. That is what the curriculum for Wales promises.

2) Welsh Government’s commitment to you

But, we can only realise that promise if we work together to make it happen. 

So I want to underline our commitment as a government to supporting you to make this a success. Whether you feel fully ready, or whether you feel that you need a lot more support, we will be there to help you.

That means: first giving you the right tools to do the job; second, making sure the system is working with you; and third, promoting the collaborative spirit we need to see each other through.

So….giving you the tools to do the job

Well, I will do everything in my power to ensure you have the support you need to make this happen. I have been talking to heads regularly since taking up my post and I know that one of the key areas that is causing anxiety is progression and assessment.

This is a big cultural shift from the way things have been done before. We know that assessment must build on progression: being clear on what needs to be learnt, why and how learners progress, determines how that should be assessed.

But the key thing is that this is not about starting from scratch. Yes, we are taking away aspects of the current arrangements that we know don’t help learners progress – such as end of stage assessments - but we are looking to build on effective classroom practice that already exists – particularly approaches to supporting well-being and progression that we have seen during the pandemic.

So to support you, I will also be making new national support available for developing progression and assessment in the new curriculum.

That includes “assessing for the future” – a series of professional development workshops being led by Camau – to deepen understanding of assessment, develop assessment practice within the classroom and to help practitioners turn the curriculum assessment guidance into reality for their learners.

In partnership with schools, we will develop resources which will be available to all schools and settings, underpinned by academic research. This will be easily accessible via Hwb to any teacher, it will include practical case studies and other resources and will start to become available from the summer term and will build up over time.

But that’s only the start. I am also today launching Camau i’r Dyfodol – Steps to the Future. Now this is a longer-term project which will be carried out by the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and the University of Glasgow, to support the understanding and application of learning progression in the new curriculum.

Camau i’r Dyfodol will bring together the expertise and experience of practitioners and education partners to co-develop a shared understanding of progression for all learners that is meaningful, manageable, and sustainable.

It will be delivered through the national network, and all schools will have the opportunity to build on their current experience of learning progression, and contribute to a shared, national understanding of what’s important.

What this means in practice is that schools, practitioners and education partners - bringing to bear expertise from our Universities, as well as international evidence - will contribute to a growing body of evidence, supporting materials, and activities that will be shared and available to feed directly back into the system and support the development of progression-based curricula at the local level.

This is a long-term 3 – year commitment to support the sustainability of curriculum implementation, in all parts of Wales. But I am sure many of you will be thinking, “Long term commitment is great but I am starting to roll out the new curriculum in six months time..?”

So in the meantime, from later this term onwards, we will publish case studies, outputs from the national network and other supporting material, to help schools to develop a shared understanding of progression - and to work together as clusters to do so.

Then of course, there is professional learning.

The OECD have said that Wales’ commitment and focus on professional learning is, I quote, “exceptional in comparison to many other OECD jurisdictions”. That is welcome. And we will continue to invest record levels of funding.

But, since becoming the minister I’ve been keen to speak to as many of you as possible, to get a proper sense of what is actually happening on the ground.

And I am not yet convinced our professional learning offer is as accessible and useful as it could be. There is lots of it, but do you know what’s there, what you should be looking for, where to look for it, and is it is easy to find? I think the truth is that there is too much variation and despite the volume of material, too many gaps. So we will change that.

We are developing a national entitlement that brings together a package of professional learning support that everyone will be entitled to and benefit from. A truly national offer – and one that will be easier to navigate.

And the word ‘entitlement’ is important here – every single teaching professional will be entitled to high quality professional learning. This entitlement has to work for you – and respond to your needs – so we’ll work with you to make sure it does.

In practice this means you will have a core package of professional learning, together with a range of additional resources, all of which you can access via Hwb and school improvement services. By the end of this term, we will have set out what this entitlement will look like and more detail on where to find things that matter.

And the entitlement itself will be available to you for September at the latest. Bringing all the resources and learning on professional learning which already exists, together with those that will be progressively commissioned in the months and years ahead, in one easy-to-find place.

And curriculum resources are also important. We need bilingual, educational resources and materials that are consistent with the spirit and ethos of the new curriculum. We will be establishing a company in Wales specifically so that we can develop these – I will be saying more on this in the coming weeks. We won’t wait for that company however, and will push ahead now with commissioning and developing materials and resources that will support you.

I also want you to have the opportunity to access the best from across the country – this is the Curriculum for Wales after all. And so I am committing that materials developed in any school improvement service, is accessible to every school in Wales whichever region or local authority you are in, via Hwb. That level of access will be available to you from September.

But I want to say again - I know there will be many teachers even now who may not feel prepared; who fear it is too late or who are unsure of what are the next steps to take, where to find support. Who may not even be confident to kick off that conversation with a head, or a colleague. So at the end of the conference today my officials will share some materials tailored to help you to take the next steps, to identify what information, guidance and resources you need to find -- and where they are.

So those were the tools for the job. We also need to make sure the system works with you not against you

I am committed to ensuring the whole system supports your schools to move towards reform.

This means a single set of common priorities across the system: giving you clear expectations for areas to focus on and giving supporting partners a single framework and language to focus on supporting you.

These common priorities will be reflected in school improvement guidance that will be published during the summer term -- placing them clearly in context in our framework for evaluation, improvement and accountability. The guidance will also be clear how evaluation and improvement work is distinct from accountability. The future use of learner assessment information is a good example of this. Its primary purpose is to support individual learner progression, and it should also inform school self-evaluation and guide improvement in teaching and learning. But it must be kept clearly separate from accountability mechanisms if it is to meet its primary purpose. We must absolutely avoid approaches that conflate the two.

And to help school leaders more practically, we will also be launching the national resource for evaluation and improvement, following its piloting on Hwb in the summer term.

I also know that for secondary schools, a big question mark remains over qualifications. Some of you will be waiting for the new qualifications to inform your approach to assessment and the curriculum as a whole - particularly for those learners aged 14 to 16. As you know Qualifications Wales is currently working to co-construct a coherent and inclusive choice of bilingual qualifications for schools. This needs to align to the curriculum for Wales and meet the needs of all learners.

I have been clear that this work must be radical and ambitious – it is not about re-packaging or re-shaping our existing qualifications – I want us to look afresh at the aims, content and assessment approaches for different qualifications.

In doing this there is lots we can draw on and learn from in responding to the pandemic – not least in terms of digital innovation and teachers’ role in assessment.

There is an opportunity now to work alongside Qualifications Wales to help shape the detail of these new qualifications and I would encourage you all to engage in and support this work as much as you can. But let me be clear, the qualifications will build on the curriculum for Wales: if you are preparing for the curriculum for Wales, you are preparing for the qualifications.

And thirdly….doing this together

This is not just about what we do: how we support each other is just as critical. Co-construction has been at the heart of the development of the Curriculum for Wales from the start and that is how we need to implement the curriculum too. We are all leaders in this change. This means working together: across different boundaries and between different organisations. It means sharing problems and jointly developing solutions. It means every voice within the process contributing, not one voice giving direction and everyone else following.

The national network will be a permanent feature: to give a voice to the profession to help drive future government policy and, crucially, to inform future professional learning. 

It is meant to give provide space and time for professionals to think and engage with other practitioners nationally. It’s not meant to give all of the answers, but it is there to share expertise, to learn from each other, and is a safe space to ask key questions.

The network is open to all schools and will be shortly open for bookings for the spring and summer terms: giving you opportunity to input into key questions around curriculum design, qualifications and progression and assessment. If your school isn’t clear how to contribute to the preparation for the network sessions, and how to access the materials that come out of them then you can access these via the curriculum page on Hwb and the materials you will receive today include a link to that.

There is one other means of support that is vital to the development of every school’s curriculum. And that is your colleagues. We are all doing this for the first time, and as such, no one has the final answer. I urge you all to work with each other, understand what is working well and crucially why and share what is not.

There is real power in sharing learning: testing and improving your own work, contributing to a national discussion as well as engaging with and learning from others. Approaches may differ but there are underpinning principles of effective practice which we can all learn from.

Your networks, the national network as well as of course Hwb, are the key channels for sharing. 

And those networks are a critical form of support. Every school should be in a cluster with other schools at this point. But it is crucial that these are functioning in a way which provides mutual support and challenge as we move towards the new curriculum. You have a role in shaping the work of the cluster that you’re a part of. This should be supported by school improvement services. But if you have concerns about how your school to school arrangements are working, it is important that you discuss this with your school improvement service.

To conclude colleagues: September is not the end – it’s the beginning of our next leg on the journey. We have embarked on a journey of continuing reform. It won’t always be an easy path – there’ll be some bumps in the road. But it will be worth it.

And please remember, you are not alone on this journey, there is support for you. We all want each other to succeed on this endeavour - for the sake of our learners.

We have the privilege and the opportunity to reshape the education our children and young people receive and we must grab that opportunity with both hands. Diolch yn fawr.