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Speech by the Cabinet Secretary for Education Kirsty Willams delivered at Leadership Foundation for Higher Education conference at the Life Sciences Hub, Cardiff Bay.

First published:
5 April 2017
Last updated:

Bore da, good morning everyone.

Firstly, I’d like to thank the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education for inviting me here today and for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts with you on leading change in Welsh education.

Just as you will be discussing the Agile University, I’d like to focus on Agile Government.

Now some of you will be thinking, and rightly so, that governments are not generally known for their agility.

And having spent many years in opposition, holding ministers to account, I’ve experienced that scepticism.

James Madison, in the Federalist Papers, described government’s slow-moving, multiple decision making, as “monuments of deficient wisdom”.

His advice, even back in the 1780s, was to keep it pretty simple.

But perhaps not as simple as government by twitter diktat at 5 in the morning…

He said that good government meant two things.

Firstly, a complete focus on the object of doing a good job - the well-being of the people.

And then, simply, the knowledge of the means by which this could be best delivered an attained.

In delivering an ambitious programme of education reforms – which I describe as our national mission – I want to share the lessons I’ve learnt in government, and my guiding principles for leading and delivering change, whilst avoiding those deficient wisdoms.

I am clear in my objectives for our reforms. We must raise standards, reduce the attainment gap and deliver an education system that is a source of national pride and national confidence.

Therefore, we are taking a whole-system approach to change. We are:

  • Reforming our curriculum and assessment measures to ensure higher standards;
  • Reducing class sizes to target disadvantaged students and encourage teaching innovation;
  • Focusing relentlessly on educational leadership as the prime driver for success;
  • Radically transforming student finance so that we become the first country in Europe to provide parity for all students; and
  • Establishing a new single strategic approach, through a new authority, for the entire post-compulsory system.

So, it’s been a very busy first ten months in office!

Back in May, the agreement with the First Minister which brought me into government set out that working together we should be ambitious, optimistic and innovative.

We agreed that high-quality education is the driving force for social mobility, national prosperity and an engaged democracy.

I believe that it is only education – and opening up the best opportunities for all our citizens – that can truly deliver such change on an individual and national scale.

As academics and leaders within universities and colleges I know that a commitment to transforming lives and promoting learning into society motivates your chosen career path. I share that commitment.

A citizen’s ability to benefit from education should not be determined by where they live or what their income is.

So, our reforms focus both on ensuring equity and promoting excellence. But these ambitions are only as good as our delivery.

If the three Rs were once considered the basic primary skills, I believe that there are 5 Cs for leading change in an agile government.

Confidence; and
Being a Champion.

I’ll take each in turn.


Firstly, ensuring coherence across the whole reform programme.

Each reform or initiative, such as reducing class sizes or extending our funding support for the poorest pupils, are distinct.

But each, through development and delivery, links to the other.

Each strengthens the other, and our commitment to raise standards and reduce the attainment gap.

This is not only important in developing policies, but in how they are communicated.

They must fit together without conflict. And the profession must also be able to understand how reforms fit together, rather than be overloaded with initiatives.

I believe the same to be true in any organisation when delivering change.

Keep on telling the story of why you believe in what you’re doing, and emphasise the links between the changes.

So, we are reducing class sizes by focusing on the largest classes first with the higher proportion of disadvantaged pupils.

At the same time we are reforming student finance to ensure that we target living costs support towards those who most need it, across full and part time and post-graduate.

Different and distinct reforms, but major policies that are coherent in addressing an injustice. That educational opportunity and attainment should not be defined by a citizen’s economic or social background.


Which brings me on to one of my key programmes, introduced as part of budget negotiations when in opposition but now extended as one of my priorities in government. The Pupil Development Grant.

Just this week I announced a change in the name.  It was previously called the Pupil Deprivation Grant.

The small, but significant, change of swapping Deprivation for Development better reflects how it works and also emphasises progression and reducing the attainment gap.

Establishing and articulating a clarity of purpose is essential to leading change. It helps ensure that we focus on getting at the root of the problems, and what reforms seek to achieve.

In the case of the PDG, the grant enables schools to be innovative in raising standards and attainment for our poorest pupils.

We’ve seen the GCSE attainment gap reduce year on year. Therefore as we’ve now increased funding, I want to emphasise development and progression, and the name as evolved.

It is simple – but identifying problems often are.

Of course, policy development and delivering is complex. But one should always be clear about the why, the when, and the what of big decisions and reforms. As you lead and reform, you must also explain.

I know that sometimes leaders and dare I say it, civil servants, can enjoy the complexity of the process. But I see it as my job to keep a focus on the fundamental changes, and articulate the difference they will make for pupils, teachers, students and parents.

And thinking about that audience is crucial to leading change.


I am conscious that we must build coalitions to deliver fundamental reforms. Yes, a leader has to lead, but I can only deliver with a coalition of the willing.

And you can’t always rely on the usual suspects.

Trust me, being the sole Liberal Democrat in Government means I have to work had to win friends and influence people!

Seriously, it’s both a matter of politics and planning.

As I set out to reform student finance for example, it was important to fully engage the NUS. And although we might have nuanced differences on the policy, I have sought to explain and discuss those differences.

Which then enables us to focus on the common objective to support students when they most need it.

But it’s important to underline that these coalitions can’t be producer led.

As mentioned earlier, my focus has to be on the student and parent. That is not to say that a Minister shouldn’t also focus on teachers and lecturers, even Vice Chancellors dare I say it.

In fact, teachers are the most powerful drivers of change and improvement in our education system.

I have sought to use our size as a smaller education system to our advantage in delivering reform.

So, just as I visit schools right across the country every week, earlier this month I addressed a conference of 200 of our secondary head teachers – over 95% of all secondary heads in Wales.

I do accept that sometimes being a smaller country can bring challenges, but I also know that it should enable us to be nimble, innovative and joined-up.

And developing a sense of togetherness and ambition is essential to being better at these core things.

It is why I speak of a national mission – reforming and improving our education system goes to the very heart of who we are as a society and country.


And I am confident about our ability to deliver on that national mission.

And being confident, being bold, is important in leading change.

But it’s just as important to be confident enough in the big change so that you are able to accept advice and evidence.

I’m convinced that reforming our curriculum, alongside measures to change assessment, teacher training and professional learning for teachers, will lead to higher standards.

But I also know that no single teacher, no head teacher acting alone, not even an Education Minister, has all the answers or the means to deliver those big changes.

So whilst I am clear and confident about curriculum reforms that centre on four purposes, the new curriculum will be co-constructed with the profession, and with input from leading international experts.

I was clear that I wanted to reform higher education and student finance and move away from an unsustainable and unaffordable system.

But it was thanks to the work of Sir Ian Diamond and his review panel that we had a pragmatic and principled means to deliver effective reform.

It is taking on board evidence and research from Ontario, Australia, America and elsewhere that has influenced our approach to class size reduction.

As Education Secretary I am radical in what I want to achieve, but pragmatic enough to know that the means and models should be based on evidence and best practice.

So confidence in leading change has two elements.

The confidence of leadership and projecting clear ambitions and objectives; alongside the confidence to listen and seek out views on how to reach those agreed goals.


That confidence brings me onto my final C. Being a Champion.

It’s about demonstrating a personal commitment to reforms, to leading change.

Quite simply it’s not the job of others to listen and explain. Just as some shops warn that ‘if you break it, you own it’ – for a leader it must be ‘if you reform it, you must own it”.

Being a champion for reform brings together a coherent approach, clarity of purpose, building a coalition and projecting confidence.

It also means committing to change for the long-term.

I judge reforms such as the Diamond Package as to whether I’m delivering change that is stable and sustainable.

I’m not afraid of making the tough, but correct, calls on major policies such as student finance, or curriculum changes. But I will only do so if they mean that a future Education Minister doesn’t then have to face the exact same problem.

As Bill Clinton used to say “always, always, always have a plan for the future”.

By advocating and championing change, you must show that today’s decision is getting it right for tomorrow.

Evidence and argument, advocacy and energy – these are what a progressive needs to champion long-term change. Lead from the front with clear purpose, but build your case, build your team.

Never be afraid of listening, or seeking our advice. But listen to that advice within the context of accepting that change will, and must, happen.

We are on our national mission in Wales to reform our education system.

In fact, we are on a mission to transform lives, communities and the country. If I can quote President Clinton again, he said that “Access to education is access to the future”.

In leading change, in being agile enough to plan and deliver, we are seeking that better future. We are doing so through an education system that can truly be a source of national pride and national confidence.

Over the last ten months, and looking ahead, I know that it is coherence, clarity, coalition, confidence and being a champion that underpins my and our ability to lead change.

It is a collective effort to reform education, but it is a mission that must be optimistic, innovative and ambitious.

And it’s also a great honour and responsibility to lead that change, and work with colleagues across schools, colleges and universities.

Many thanks for listening – Diolch yn fawr.