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Speech by the Cabinet Secretary for Education Kirsty Willams.

First published:
11 May 2017
Last updated:


Thank you for that introduction Daran.

And thanks to Positif for organising this and similar forums, where we have the opportunity to discuss and debate topical issues.

As part of this evening’s remarks, I hope to take you on a brief world tour. 

We’ll take in Missouri, over to Massachusetts …as well as more evocative places such as … Morfa in my hometown, Llanelli. I’ll explain more in due course.

During my remarks, I intend to describe our national mission of education reform as everybody’s business.

Raising standards and reducing the attainment gap must matter to all citizens, companies and those who care about our national well-being.

And we must draw upon the talent and commitment that exists beyond the classroom to deliver on that national mission.

Of course, the idea of delivering equity and excellence in our education system as a national mission - a national endeavour - is not new nor mine alone.

As far back as the nineteenth century, the great educationalist and progressive Elizabeth Phillips Hughes was making the case for a Welsh approach to education, and advocating for the education of girls in particular.

Before returning to Wales and being the only woman on the committee which drafted the charter of the University of Wales, she was the first principal of the Cambridge Teacher College for Women. Cambridge University subsequently renamed it Hughes Hall in her honour.

In a pamphlet of 1884 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”.

She is also perhaps more famous for saying that "A woman's place is wherever she likes". Hear hear to that.

Value of education

So, from my place at the Cabinet table what do I see as the task ahead of us, and how and why should it be everybody’s business?

Quite simply, a nation’s prosperity, cohesion and well-being are built on a strong and successful education system. That is why I describe our reforms to raise standards, reduce the attainment gap and deliver a system of national pride and confidence as a national mission.

Supporting a high-quality teaching profession, which prioritises on-going professional learning and strong leadership, which sets and delivers on high expectations for our leaners, schools and whole system.

At the heart of this is a new curriculum, which sets high standards for all.

It will develop our children and young people as citizens, but with the knowledge and skills needed for a changing work place.
Our young people will achieve higher standards of literacy and numeracy, and become more digitally and bilingually competent, enterprising, creative, critical thinkers.

Education is not a rehearsal. It helps prepare our young people for the world of work, but it is important in and of itself.

It reflects who we are as a society, what we value, and how we ensure that all have an equal opportunity to fulfil their potential.

Ensuring that each and every learner has the same chance to reach the highest standards is core to my approach. It is why I focused on negotiating the Pupil Deprivation Grant in Opposition.

And it is why I have prioritised increasing and extending that support for disadvantaged pupils in Government.

Now called the Pupil Development Grant – to better reflect a focus on attainment – it has been hugely successful in delivering opportunity and raising standards and expectations. But I will accept no excuse in always looking to raise the bar further.

Raising standards

In recent years there has been a focus on raising GCSE attainment to a C grade. This has certainly motivated many schools to support students to reach that goal.  This should of course be welcomed.

But I also know that it leads to unintended consequences. I am concerned that more able children have not been stretched further and aimed for the highest grades.

Even worse, some (I believe) are put in for early entry, banking a lower qualification instead of reaching higher.

We must more ambitious for our young people.

Therefore, I am actively looking at introducing a targeted scheme to better identify and support our more able and talented pupils.

It will link with the successful Seren Network for our brightest sixth formers and look at issues around transition from primary, connecting pupils across different schools and communities, subject choice and GCSE attainment.

I am determined that we marry our commitment to equity - inherent in a public service comprehensive system - with a matching commitment to excellence.

Science - everybody's business

It pains me to say that until recently there were secondary schools in Wales where not a single pupil was being entered for GCSE science.  Not a single pupil.

In a combination of cynicism, dumbing down and lowered ambitions, some schools were just entering pupils for BTECs.

Right for some pupils, but certainly not for the majority, and definitely not right for all students.

I’m pleased to report that we’re now addressing this through our new GCSEs and revised performance measures.

Such actions weren’t helping learners; they weren’t supporting our economy and were doing nothing to close the attainment and ambitions gap.

When it comes to science, I’m pleased to say we’re already seeing some progress in Triple Science numbers, and I expect that number to pass single science this year and pass BTEC science very soon.

The PISA results tell us that we’re not doing well enough in science, and that our more able students aren’t doing as well as those in other countries.

PISA divides opinion and some just want to bury their heads. But I know that it’s the international benchmark for skills.  Countries around the world use it as a signal to entrepreneurs, employers and investors.

To paraphrase the old saying: “Education Ministers who complain about PISA are like sailors complaining about the sea."

It’s never been more important to show to Wales, and to the world, that our young people can compete with others in the UK and across the world. Head-teachers and schools must hear that message.

Universities - everybody's business

So we need to keep doing more, inspiring young people and further involving our universities.

I’m delighted that Swansea University now offers a popular module for their Physics students, where they are required to spend time in local schools teaching Physics and learning how to communicate their knowledge.

Not only does it inspire pupils to see bright young students passing on their understanding, it encourages those Physics students to consider a career in teaching.

In fact, it’s been so successful at Swansea that the Vice Chancellor has asked all departments to look at the scheme and explore whether they can deliver similar opportunities.

It’s good for the student experience.
It’s good for identifying potential new teachers who may not have considered it before.
And it’s good for universities and schools to build deeper and stronger relationships beyond just student recruitment.

As a Government we fund a similar languages mentoring scheme and I am keen that universities see the benefit of this and expand to other disciplines.

I have spoken previously that Universities have a duty as stewards of community, city and country.

With such significant human, academic and cultural resources, I want them to get more involved in raising standards in our schools, going beyond teacher training.

It would be good to see, for example, far more of our universities senior leaders becoming school governors. Using their experience and expertise to help shape school performance.

Community & business – everybody's business

I was fortunate during my degree to spend time at the University of Missouri.

In St Louis, they take civic engagement very seriously.

Its leading CEOs, Executives, University Presidents and so on have got together as an organisation called Civic Progress.

Though this, they work collaboratively to improve the quality of life, education, and business across the city.

In raising school standards, they have sought to make best use of their expertise and resources.

So, they are focused on leadership development, help for school financial management and organisation, and various programmes to reduce inequality and support attainment. We need some of that St Louis Spirit here in Wales.

In a different but not dissimilar way, we have sought to widen involvement in shaping our new curriculum beyond educationalists.

A rather different approach to the Eighties when Brian Griffiths, now Lord Griffiths of course, advised Mrs Thatcher that they should just get a group of historians in over the weekend and the history curriculum would be sorted!

We are co-constructing with the teaching profession, but also with experts and those interested from outside education.

So on modern languages we have consulates and embassies involved;
on health and well-being organisations such as Stonewall and the NUS are involved;
And representatives from industry are involved in our National Network for Excellence in Science and Technology.

And our ambitious plans to roll out coding clubs in schools across Wales are supported by companies such as Barefoot Computing and the Big Learning Company.

In fact, the Big Learning Company are the driving force behind Tramshed Tech in Grangetown, partnering with Lego Education, and working to support the development of digital and coding skills in the curriculum.

Parents – everybody's business

I have made much reference to getting those from outside to be involved in raising standards in the classroom.

Of course, we know that the biggest influences on attainment are teaching quality and parental engagement.

Research from the Harvard Family Research Project suggests that by the time they are eleven years old, middle class kids have benefited from 6,000 more hours learning than their disadvantaged peers.

All too often this leads to a gap in opportunity, ambition and attainment.

The knock on effects mean that we fail to ensure that each child has the knowledge and skills to compete and succeed. It fails to deliver better employers, entrepreneurs and leaders for the future.

But we mustn’t be complacent. We can’t accept it as a way of life.

In Morfa – one of the more disadvantaged areas of Llanelli and Carmarthenshire – they recognise that they often have to address parental negative experience of school in the first place.

Working with other agencies, and the local FE College, Morfa parents benefit from training but also learning opportunities tailored to their own experience in informal surroundings. These are the levers for school improvement.

These approaches are backed up by research and data into family learning capacities.

This then supports the effective targeting of resources and interventions at a pupil and family level.

This includes parents trained as Maths Mentors to deliver Maths interventions for other parents. Other schools across Wales are also using this approach – alongside innovative use of Pupil Development Grant funding.

Morfa’s head teacher, Mr Cudd, came to present at my ministerial policy board earlier this year, and will be presenting at the American National Community Schools Forum in California next month.

I often say that to be the best, Wales needs to learn from the best. But I’m also proud when our initiatives gain the respect and interest from the international education community.

Teachers – everybody's business

Another such example that’s gained international recognition is the Fern Federation school in Pontypridd. During a recent OECD visit to Wales, they identified the professional learning and coaching taking place there as world-leading practice.

By using live and digital observation of classroom practice, teachers at the Fern Federation are able to share and receive immediate feedback, share lessons and workload and develop deep research and professional development practice.

For me, teachers should be the most dedicated students in the classroom. Learning from each other, from research and from best practice whether in the next classroom, county or country.

This will bring benefits right across our education system, raising standards across the board.

All good educators know they will teach better lessons tomorrow than yesterday, due to the simple fact that they are learning all the time. Teachers must be life-long students.  And it must be both an individual and collective effort.

Stanford University found that in a single year’s teaching the top 10% of teachers imparted three times as much learning as the worst 10%. But we must bust the myth that great teachers are born, not made.

Teachers improve through reflecting on their own experience, by learning from colleagues, by engaging with all pupils and research, keeping up with subject-matter knowledge and teaching methods.

Much of this relies on their own motivation and commitment, but there’s also a role for colleges and universities, for the regional consortia, for the new National Academy of Educational Leadership, for head-teachers and for parents to expect that teachers are always learning and improving.


In addition, of course, I want to see that greater involvement from undergraduates and universities I mentioned earlier.

I am also looking to reform our graduate teacher programme so we bring more high-calibre mature entrants in teaching, bringing new and different experiences and expertise.

In due course I will also be announcing innovative pilots to support the greater use of business managers – providing dedicated support for leaders and teachers, so that they better focus on raising standards.

And we’ve already started work – in partnership – to seize the opportunity of devolved teachers’ pay and conditions. No longer a ‘for Wales, see England’ approach. 

Instead, a truly national model that offers not only parity of pay, but enshrines a national approach to professional learning, new professional standards, reduced bureaucracy, formative assessment, and the freedom for teachers use their professionalism and knowledge.

I am all too aware of the forces of conservatism that prefer the status quo. Lacking the courage to trust in themselves, to trust in Wales’s reforms. 

And by conservatives I don’t mean Tories. Although Thomas Paine’s description of conservative forces as sometimes cruel, but never brave, might also be apt in this instance.

But as Paine said in the same essay, now is not the time not to shrink from national service.

Education reform, raising standards and delivering on high expectations is not easy.

But anything that we achieve cheaply, we know is worth less celebration.

The tougher we work, the more relentless the focus on raising standards for all, the more satisfaction we will gain in delivering on our national mission.

Education matters because it changes lives.

It matters because it gives opportunity, hope and freedom from prejudice.

It builds better and stronger societies, communities and economies.

Our national mission matters to all in Wales. Put simply, it’s everybody’s business.