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Speech by the Cabinet Secretary for Education, Kirsty Williams AM. Delivered at the National Education Conference.

First published:
17 November 2016
Last updated:

Good morning. First of all, let me say how delighted I am to be here today, at my first National Education Conference as Cabinet Secretary for Education.

It’s good to be here at the Swalec Stadium. Like many of you I’m sure, I’ve been here before to cheer on Glamorgan, and to enjoy an Ashes Test Match.

That said, I’m not an expert on cricket. Indeed, I find it difficult to understand how a game can last five days and still end up as a draw….

And, you know, some might pose a similar question of devolution.

How, after seventeen years, is Welsh education not yet an all-round winner of which we can all be proud?

Let me be clear. I am, and remain, committed to democratic devolution and self-government.

It allows us to make our own decisions, suited to our own circumstances and to set our own ambitions and aspirations.

But it comes with a responsibility too. A responsibility to tell it like it is, and face up to challenges. And to avoid the false comfort of blaming others for our decisions.

The truth is that, despite the toil, time and tenacity of so many dedicated people over the years, Welsh education has not been - and it still isn’t - where it should be. The international evidence shows us that.

But I was delighted to see the GCSE attainment gap between poorer pupils and their peers close once again this year. That’s down to your hard work.

But frankly, it’s still not good enough. That attainment gap is the enduring injustice in our education system.

By driving up opportunities and standards for our poorest pupils, we raise our ambitions for all.

I don’t believe that you become teachers just to work with the haves and the high-achievers.

No – I know that you become teachers because of your desire to make a difference.

To change lives. To build better futures. To do your bit for your fellow citizens, your communities and yes, your country.

That’s why I describe these education reforms as our – and I mean our – national mission.

I know these changes are happening at pace. That can be daunting. But I trust in you – our professionals.

And you know what, you must also trust in me. Together, with passion and conviction, we can ensure that all young people have an equal opportunity to reach the highest standards.

I make no apologies that this national mission is pretty simple in what we want to achieve.

Simple, but not easy. And not without tough decisions or bumps in the road.

It’s about getting to grips with the fundamentals of a modern education system. And delivering results for our youngest citizens.

But that simplicity and clarity in purpose and policy is my guiding principle.

As Issac Newton said “Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.”

The truth is that we’ve still got lots to do.

But I know that being in the classroom is never simple. It can be complicated, complex and challenging.

But I also know – because you tell me – that it is the most rewarding profession.

And because of that I want it to be our most respected profession too.

To achieve this, Government will support you.

  • We will support you to be the best you can be, raising the standing of the profession as a whole.
  • We will support you by ensuring opportunities for regular development, working with you as the most important students in the classroom.
  • We will support you through the new Professional Teaching Standards, promoting ambition, aspiration and ownership.
  • We will support you by reforming teacher training, and getting more of our best young people to work with you as our new generation of teachers; and
  • We will support you by introducing the Welsh Academy of Leadership, recognizing talent, achievement and ambition.

It’s an ambitious set of opportunities. Each linked to our wider reforms of introducing the new curriculum, reducing infant class sizes, extending the pupil deprivation grant and delivering a genuinely self-improving system.

I will not shirk from my commitment to those reforms. And my commitment to providing opportunities for the profession to grow, develop and recognize excellence.

I know that a school can’t be better than its teachers. It’s a simple truth.

So, where a school and its students aren’t succeeding, we know that its teachers, despite their efforts, are also not succeeding as they’d like.

I don’t think that’s a controversial statement to make.

I want to work with you, your colleagues, the consortia, the education workforce council, Estyn, local authorities, parents and others to honestly address those issues.

And I’ll be even more honest. I have no time at all for representatives of the profession who go around accusing the consortia of acting like the Secret Police.

Yes, I’m afraid that just such a preposterous accusation was made in a recent meeting with officials. Just shocking.

I will admit that the Consortia had some initial issues – some stuck in neutral, some driving off in different directions.

But I’m convinced – and the evaluation tells me – that they’ve helped bring a better sense of purpose, an improved ‘together stronger’ mentality.

I am encouraged by increased collaboration between my officials and consortia, and across consortia. We are part way through a significant reform programme and partnership will be essential in moving our education system forward.

I will be meeting with the Central South consortium this afternoon, for what I hope will be some constructive conversations. They’ve made good progress regarding Key Stage 4 and it’s encouraging that so many schools are now working in collaborative partnerships.

I know that trust is hard-earned, but I believe that the Consortia – linking with schools, universities and across the sector – are making a strong contribution to improved outcomes for students, schools and our education system.

And so… as we all know, the PISA tests were a pretty loud wake up call that we were lagging behind. The Government rightly asked OECD to shine a spotlight on our system.

It revealed Wales’ strengths, but also our weakness. The Welsh Government duly responded, in 2014, with its improvement plan, Qualified for Life.

It included four main objectives. All of which I support. To recap, these objectives were:

  • to have an excellent professional workforce
  • an engaging curriculum
  • qualifications that are nationally and internationally respected
  • and leaders working together in a self-improving system.

All of which our reforms are based on. Much has been done to meet these objectives and of course there is more to do.

But today, I am announcing to you that I will be adding a fifth and final objective in the next iteration of Qualified for Life. Something personal to me: the Wellbeing of our children.

Whenever I pass Great Ormond Street Hospital, its motto never ceases to stop me in my tracks: “The Child First and Always”. It’s this clarity of vision that stays with me.

The wellbeing of a child must be at the heart of our inclusive education system.

While wellbeing was implicit in Qualified for Life, today I want to make it explicit. Our national mission can only be truly successful if all our people are allowed to flourish.

As you know, in the last Assembly, the Welsh Government needed support from other parties to pass its budget. This allowed the opposition to fight for their priorities. For five years, my party fought for the exact same thing: support for our most disadvantaged pupils.

Great Ormond’s motto was with me then, and it’s with me now.

Outside of government, my party secured the Pupil Deprivation Grant. Inside government, I will use it as a key tool to improve the life chances of all our children. The wellbeing of every child must be at the heart of all we do.

That is why I was so proud – as I mentioned earlier - that for the 2nd year in a row we have seen the stubborn attainment gap between the poorest pupils and their peers narrow.

I am in no doubt that the PDG is working. That is why as Cabinet Secretary, not only will I guarantee its funding, but I am expanding it from £300 to £600 for our youngest learners.

I’m doing this because I truly believe that all children and young people are well, both emotionally and physically. I also believe that everyone has a responsibility to remove barriers to learning.

And so my challenge to you is to look at what you’re already doing in looking out for each and every pupil’s wellbeing, then think about what more could you do.

And as we are in the midst of Anti Bullying Week, now is a good time to seriously think about how this growing problem affects wellbeing and what more we can do to raise awareness.

This year we will continue to support efforts with a range of anti-bullying material and resources aimed at pupils, parents and teachers. It is important we continue to work together with key stakeholders to spread the message that bullying is everyone’s business and will not be accepted. Our Learners should feel safe and valued.

It’s absolutely vital that we work collectively to promote tolerance and understanding, we need to foster an inclusive environment for every young person going through those school gates.

And this brings me back to why our education reforms must work for everyone, no matter what their individual needs are.

It’s why our ambitious Transformation Programme to improve outcomes for children and young people with additional learning needs is such an important part of our overall vision for education reform.

We will introduce an ALN Bill this year, but that is just one part of what we’re doing to create an inclusive, equitable education system where all learners are supported to overcome barriers to achieve their full potential.

Our new curriculum will be essential in preparing our young people so they are able to lead fulfilling personal, civic and professional lives in our modern world.

I’m confident that over the next few years, we will be seeing a big difference – our curriculum, made in Wales but shaped by the best from around the world, will be a fundamental part of our national mission.

I, like any parent, want the absolute best for my daughters. Every parent should be confident that their child goes to a school that helps them grow as capable, healthy and well-rounded citizens.

My aim is for the new curriculum and assessment arrangements to be available to settings and schools from September 2018 and used to support learning and teaching from September 2021.

I’m delighted to report that we are really making fantastic strides in developing the curriculum.

And thanks must be given here to the Pioneer Schools who are taking time out to think through key questions, undertaking research and ensuring that before we start lots of activity we have a sound evidence base.

These schools have already made progress in developing the Digital Competence Framework, supporting peer to peer learning, continually improving and sharing ideas.

Alongside their work in developing the new curriculum, the Pioneer Network will also have a central role with the development of new assessment arrangements in Wales.

And so I’m convinced that we will make a success of the reforms that lie ahead, but we must work together to get the basics right, raising our standards so all pupils, students and teachers achieve excellence.

That is why these reforms are being developed and delivered in partnership with schools and teachers across the country.

Expectations are high, as they must be. But again, I reiterate, I have faith in Wales’ professionals to deliver for our young people. Yes it’s a big task, but one I know you will accomplish.

But, of course, a curriculum on its own isn’t enough: a good curriculum still needs great teachers.

I will be blunt: I have no time for those that think they are the finished article. That they don’t need professional development. That average is good enough. If that is the case, then please look elsewhere, as teaching in Wales is not for you.

This is not punitive. To me, the teacher should be the most important student in the classroom.

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 are life-long students. Learning from each other, continuously improving, and studying best practice whether it’s in the next classroom, country or continent.

As far as I’m concerned, teaching is the most important job in the whole world. I mean it. I want teaching to be a first choice profession. I want to attract the best into teaching and make it a lifelong career. And that is why I remain so focused on getting Wales’ ITE offer right.

However, we know that it’s not just excellent teaching that will raise standards in schools – it’s also excellent leadership.

Leadership is definitely one area where I feel Wales has not made enough progress – and we have not moved at enough pace.

I have previously mentioned my intention to establish a leadership academy, and today I issued a Written Statement firming up these plans.

We will establish a national body for Wales to ensure that all leaders in our education system can benefit from high quality professional learning opportunities, bringing together the best knowledge on school leadership and of system change.

Key partners from within Wales and beyond have been part of discussions aimed at designing this facilitating body, which I have no doubt will help move forward our reform agenda and provide future leaders in Wales with excellent learning opportunities.

I will also be forming an advisory board for the Academy, and as part of these arrangements I have asked Ann Keane to chair the initial phase of this work.

This is an exciting appointment and I know it will inject a fresh challenge to leadership, a new way of thinking taken from the best of business.

To support Ann I’m really pleased to announce that we have also secured several well-respected members for the advisory board.

So to conclude: I think we’re on the up but still have a way to go!

The Summer GSCE results remained stable – in a good way. 66.6% of our young people achieved the A-C grade, closing the gap between England and us. But that’s not enough, is it? We all want more than that.

Wales is in a better place than we have been in a long time, and I want to keep that going – at pace.

We must not be blown off course.

To be appointed Education Secretary was an honour. An honour because day in and day out I meet educators who are dedicating their lives to making a difference. Let’s be honest, there are easier ways to make a living aren’t there?

Earlier this month, one headteacher told me that she felt a great responsibility for the children in her school, and how they would fare in life once they left.

But what I found most uplifting, was that she sees herself as part of the education system as a whole. Not only does she want the children in her school doing well, but she wants to see this happening in schools across the whole of Wales.

And that’s what it’s all about. Not insular, but working together… teacher to teacher, school to school, region to region… for the greater good of Wales.

Being part of the bigger picture. A national mission.

For so long, we have looked to other countries as a benchmark for excellence. But come on… Finland must surely be fed up by now with the constant flow of international visitors traipsing around their schools, trying to seek out whatever their secret to success is!

But conference, one day, and I mean this most sincerely, one day other countries will be looking to us as the best, using us as the benchmark. I want international visitors traipsing around our schools, seeking out our secret!

I want to close by sharing this thought with you… when I came into this post, I was challenged by trying to imagine what success in education would look like.

There could be any number of answers, depending on what angle you’re looking at it from.

However, I think success will be that no matter what the young person’s background, no matter what classroom they studied in, no matter what school – that person will go on to live a rewarding and fulfilling life because of their experience of education. It’s the individual envisaged in Successful Futures.

That’s our challenge. That’s our job.

Thank you for your time. I hope you enjoy the rest of the conference, and I look forward to the panel questions later on today. I’m sure you’re all going to take it easy on me!