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Speech by the Cabinet Secretary for Education Kirsty Williams.

First published:
30 May 2018
Last updated:


I am delighted to be here today and would like to offer my thanks to The OU in Wales for organising this summit. Can I also thank Alan for giving up his time, and offering us some insight, as well as challenges, for this important agenda.

Quite simply, social mobility matters more than ever. But it’s also more complicated than ever.

The divides in society, between the generations, and across communities is a moral, economic and educational imperative.

I will focus my remarks today on the role of education in meeting those challenges.

I am convinced of the role – the necessity – of good government and strong leadership to promote a fairer, more prosperous and more mobile Wales.

Of course, when it comes to social mobility, some might take the more cynical view as famously expressed by Quentin Crisp in the Naked Civil Servant.

“Keeping up with the Joneses was a full-time job with my mother and father. It was not until many years later when I lived alone that I realized how much cheaper it was to drag the Joneses down to my level.”

Perhaps he didn’t have Wales in mind – rather more difficult here to sort the Joneses out from each other!


So, today I am going to set out some tests and targets for delivering on social mobility within our education reforms over the coming period.

Two years ago, the progressive agreement between myself and the First Minister set out our belief that “high-quality education is the driving force for social mobility, national prosperity and an engaged democracy”.

Although obviously we come from different, but not distant, political traditions, those purposes go to the very heart of our convictions.

  • So, whether it’s introducing the most progressive student support package in the UK - unique in the whole of Europe
  • Reducing class sizes, as we know its pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who benefit the most
  • Extending and expanding the Pupil Development Grant
  • Introducing Wales’s first dedicated strategy and funding to support our More Able learners
  • Or reforming school performance measures so the attainment gap is no longer hidden.

We are taking direct action to open up opportunities, provide targeted support and improve the life chances of all learners but particularly those from the poorest backgrounds. But there’s always more to do.

Therefore, today I will outline our ambitions in some other key areas:

  • The number of Welsh students who progress onto Master’s study – the next big challenge in improved social mobility
  • The number of Welsh students who should benefit from international experience
  • How our Seren Network will expand opportunities for students to reach the leading universities
  • A substantial increase in the number of students taking science GCSE
  • To reaffirm our ambitions on a more qualified workforce.

Social mobility journey

Many of you will know that a commitment to remove barriers and widen opportunity – whilst setting high expectations for all - is what motivates my politics.

And this is especially true in ensuring that women and girls – from all backgrounds – are encouraged to aim as high as possible.

It’s not the easiest of roads. But we have a proud tradition and many – but not enough – examples of recent success.

Studying at Cardiff University's predecessor institution in the 1890s, Maria Dawson became the first graduate – male or female – of the University of Wales. That is testament to the equity – and excellence – which inspired the early days of our higher education sector.

And Dr Dawson – as she became – went on to receive her PhD and pursue important botanical research.

Of course, Cardiff University also appointed the first ever female Professor in the UK, Millicent Hughes McKenzie, who became Professor of Education in 1910.

Today, we can be proud that more than half of the leaders of our universities in Wales are female.  And that they have committed the sector to be the first in the UK to pay the real living wage to all staff.

What our universities can do today - for their students and staff, and citizens across the country - is true social mobility in action.

Take Kath Southard from Swansea who recently graduated from the Open University.

In her late thirties, she continued to regret that she’d never been to university, and raising her little boy as a single parent whilst working, meant that traditional study wasn’t easily accessible.

Her work as a receptionist left her feeling both bored and unfulfilled and she’d lost confidence because of that and her personal situation.

So after years of dedicated study, fitting around her life, her degree now means she’s got her dream job - a significant promotion – as an operations manager within the same company.

There are thousands of people, like Kath, across Wales.

Having attended many OU graduation ceremonies, I know that very little comes close to the sense of achievement, celebration and triumph that fills the Millennium Centre on those days.

1st test – Master’s

So, onto the new measures I am announcing today which will be my test on how we are using the greatest force for social mobility – education reform – to deliver on this agenda.

It is clear to me that progression into postgraduate study is our next challenge in widening participation – it’s good for individual development, good for diversifying entry into the professions, and good for economic well-being.

And we have to face up to the fact that in the ten years to 2015/16, the number of Welsh students entering postgraduate courses decreased significantly.

So, by introducing equivalent living costs support – in grants and loans – for master’s students, we will address this challenge.

Therefore, I can give a commitment that over the lifetime of this government, we will see an increase of at least 10% in the number of Wales domiciled students studying at Master’s level.

And by ensuring that those students from the poorest backgrounds will receive the most generous support, we will widen access to post-graduate study.

At the moment, while there is one postgraduate from Cardiff or Ceredigion for every two full-time undergraduates from those same areas, it is only one-per-four in a Valleys area such as Merthyr Tydfil or Torfaen.

This of course is already within the context of lower undergraduate participation rates from the Valleys.

I want HEFCW, working with our universities, to help address this. I look forward to receiving their action plan in January – if not before.

2nd test - International

As someone who benefited hugely from time studying abroad as an undergraduate, I know how such an experience broadens horizons, expands key skills and through stronger links also benefits our home universities and communities.

As Universities UK have pointed out, these gains are particularly significant for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. On average those who spend time abroad, go on to earn on average 6% more than their peers.

But it these disadvantaged students who too often miss out from such an experience.

So, I’m delighted that many Welsh universities have signed up to Universities UK’s ‘Go International’ campaign to double the percentage of undergraduates who have an international placement as part of their university programme by 2020.

I want to see all Welsh universities sign up to this.

In fact I want to see the number of Welsh students who spend time abroad as part of their studies double by the end of this government.

Currently, just over 1,400 Welsh students spend some time studying, volunteering or undertaking work experience abroad. I am determined to work with the sector to improve this.

Next year we will launch – starting with a pilot scheme – a funded programme to ensure many more Welsh students have international study and work experience opportunities.

But it can’t just be Government funded or match funded-programmes; I want to see more from universities and colleges – working with industry and civic leadership – to grasp this opportunity.

3rd test – Science

I should recognise that the higher education sector in Wales has already responded positively to my call to recapture a sense of civic mission.

Not only the commitment on living wage as I mentioned earlier, but being proactive in strengthening relationships with schools and teachers – going beyond teacher training and student recruitment.

Building on the success of getting more and more languages undergraduates into schools to inspire pupils to continue with their MFL study, we are going forward with a similar scheme for physics, starting in September.

It’s great for individual students, offering them employability and communication experiences, and a huge bonus for school pupils to see and hear from those from their communities who have decided to pursue further study in the sciences. I am convinced this approach is essential to increasing GCSE and A Level take up of science.

It is with regret that until recently we had some schools where whole cohorts of 16 year olds where studying for BTEC science. And it was happening particularly in more disadvantaged areas.

That is a culture of lowered expectations that we must, and will, reject.

Our performance measures will no longer allow such gaming to get through the system. It was a worrying trend that pupils who should have been entered for GCSE were being entered for BTEC Science.

We are already seeing an increase in the numbers being entered for Science GCSE. I expect that momentum to continue so that by the end of this Assembly term nearly every pupil in our system will be entered for a Science GCSE.

4th test - Seren

Of course, studying a science is an important facilitating subject for entry to many subjects at university.

Our Seren Network is doing a fantastic job and raising ambition and aspiration all across the nation.

Next month I’m truly excited to meet the first 18 students from Wales who will be attending summer school at Yale University.

We cannot put a limit on the ambitions of our young people – from all backgrounds.

Therefore I am setting an aspiration that the percentage of all Welsh domiciled undergraduate first years going to Sutton Trust institutions will rise to 22% over the next five years. This will be a 10% increase on latest available figures.

Of course, Seren plays a crucial role – working with all Welsh universities – to promote progression and access. This will remain a key part of the network.

And with our master’s and teacher training reforms, I also expect to see an increase in Welsh students staying and returning to Wales for their post-graduate study.

5th test – Quals gap

Finally, we know that social mobility is not a one-off fork in the road when you are eleven or eighteen, despite policy decisions elsewhere in the UK that seem to encourage this.

As the economy and labour market continue to change, lifelong learning has never been more important, both for national prosperity and individual development.

It is essential that people are equipped with the right skills and knowledge to ensure they can exploit the opportunities an evolving labour market presents.

Our student finance reforms – delivering living costs support for part-time students – will deliver on this. But we also need to do more – working with employers and learning providers – to offer programmes and courses to meet career and skills needs.

We must be bold in thinking of alternative and flexible routes.

So, we are already looking at how we can do more to attract non-traditional workers into the teaching profession. There will be two alternative routes:

  • a part-time PGCE
  • an employment-based route.

The Employment Based Route will mean that the student teacher can be employed from the outset. It will also enable the regional consortia to address proven shortages in schools region by region.

The part-time PGCE will deliver the qualification to students via a blended learning model. This will ensure that the provision is geographically neutral. It will also enable part-time students to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the new student finance arrangements.

We will be looking to an HE provider, or a partnership of providers, to deliver both these proposals. This will mean working with the consortia in all regions, and with schools, thus securing the benefits of working to scale. I will be saying more about this on the 5th of June at an event to stimulate interest and discussion.

Further more on re-skilling and training, as a government and working across departments and sectors, we will eliminate the gap between Wales and the rest of the UK at all qualification levels in ten years, and ensure in future as a minimum, we maintain our performance relative to the rest of the UK.

Over the coming period, we will make further announcements on our approach to this.


I started by saying that the issue of social mobility is more complicated than ever.

But that doesn’t mean it is challenge we shouldn’t take head-on.

Our education reforms are already tackling those pockets of lowered expectations and pre-destined routes and qualifications.

No-one should feel as if their position and place in society has been pre-determined.

And we need to promote second chances and changing the course of your career and life as an integral part of our social mobility challenge.

So, many thanks to the Open University for organising this summit today – they and other colleges, universities and learning providers have a crucial role in working with us to deliver on this agenda.

As a government we are open to your ideas and inspiration today – as we seek to open the minds of our learners, open up access to the professions and open up opportunities for all.

Thank You.