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Speech by the Cabinet Secretary for Education Kirsty Williams.

First published:
20 March 2018
Last updated:


Diolch yn fawr Dylan.

Many thanks to Yr Athrofa for hosting this evening’s event as part of your seminar programme.

You are making a significant contribution to the current and future success of education in Wales.

Not only by training our future teachers and leaders, but by encouraging debate and discussion in how we move forward together. We truly need more of that.

It’s great to be here at Tramshed Tech.

Its mission to promote collaboration within the tech and creative industries - supporting a co-working community - is also one that I want to see flourish in education.


My – and the Government’s – driving purpose in education reform is that we raise standards for all and reduce the attainment gap.

We don’t write off anyone, or anywhere.

High expectations –with the right support, at the right time – for all students, schools and settings.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t recognise differences.

Within a thriving and equitable public service education system, we must deepen collaboration and co-operation.

Successful co-operation which delivers for learners, teachers and the sector is one that brings different experiences, communities and missions together.

So, this evening, I want to share with you some thoughts on the Welsh Way.

How we partner equity with excellence, within a renewed commitment to public service education.

  • How we must work harder not to leave anyone behind.
  • How we can continue to promote different ways of school organisation and improvement.
  • How we must, across our system, recognise differentiation as a positive - with equal but different contributions to the national mission.


Andres Schleicher of the OECD says that “student achievements should reflect their abilities and efforts, not their personal circumstances.”

I couldn’t agree more.

It’s why in opposition I worked with Government to secure the Pupil Development Grant.

And why now in Government I have expanded and extended it.

But it’s not just about an extra £93 million a year - £400 million since 2012 - essential as that is.

It’s about culture.

In Estonia and Japan, the most disadvantaged 20% of students do as well as the average student in the rest of the OECD.

And they perform better than the most advantaged students in 20 other OECD economies.

According to Andres, the answer is uncomplicated. He says that:

“They set high and universal expectations for all students.

They keep an unwavering focus on great teaching.

They target resources on struggling students and schools.

And they stick with coherent, long-term strategies.”

Those of you here who are familiar with our national action plan will hopefully recognise those objectives now also drive Wales’s reforms.

Tough decisions and no-one left behind

Having a relentless focus on standards, great teaching and high expectations for all, does mean taking some tough decisions.

And we’ve made plenty of those recently.

Correct calls that challenge examples of lower expectations and writing off cohorts of students.

We’ve moved away from the practice of GCSE early entry, which meant many students banking a C grade when they could have achieved so much more.

We’ve moved away from whole cohorts – particularly those from more disadvantaged backgrounds - studying for BTEC Science, and we now have nearly 70% of schools entering learners for all three science GCSEs.  Yes this had an effect on the most recent results - but it’s also the right thing to do.

We’ve addressed the oversight of failing to stretch our more able – from whatever background – by investing £3m in a new programme, building on the Seren network.

As the educationalist and author of Cleverlands, Lucy Crehan has said:

“The most successful education systems around the world are those that aim to hold all children to higher standards.”

Through our work with the OECD, and with others through the Atlantic Rim Collaboratory, we are in the international mainstream.

It is England that is an outlier: its infatuation with grammar schools for example.

Quite simply, they are making a conscious decision to write off a significant proportion of pupils.

In fact, Lucy Crehan goes further and says that the whole rationale for grammar schools is to:

“Offer a refuge for those poor children that do have academic potential, by letting them leave the others behind.”

Some might say ‘that’s life’ - that we need to pick winners and losers at 11 years of age.

That is not the culture that I will allow to take hold in Wales.

By believing in a non-selective comprehensive system, I admit that we are setting ourselves a challenge.

But it is a challenge with a moral conviction.

As a small country, we can’t leave anyone behind.

We just can’t afford to leave anyone behind.

And being small means we should, and can, address this.

Mixed Economy Summary

In setting high expectations for all, we recognise that learners and providers need different levels of support.

We may not spend most of our time and energy discussing structures, as happens across the border – but that doesn’t mean we prescribe the same solution for all. Quite the opposite.

A progressive comprehensive system is a system that suits each and every learner’s needs and requirements in their education journey.

We recognise there will be local and regional differences.

And within a connected, collaborative and self-improving system that is strength not a weakness.

Welsh medium, English medium and bilingual schools;

Large urban comprehensives and federated rural schools;

School based sixth forms, FE colleges and training providers;

An increasing number of through schools; and

Research-intensive universities and more locally-focused employer-engaged institutions.

Sixth forms and TERCW

Before moving on, I want to focus briefly on sixth forms and our technical consultation on post-compulsory education and training to be published next week.

I can confirm that we are proposing that sixth form provision will be in the remit of our new tertiary education and research commission.

As a believer in a mixed economy of post-16 provision, let me be clear that I am, always have and always will be, a supporter of sixth forms.

However we need greater coherence, and a stronger national and regional strategic approach to improve outcomes for learners.

Giving the Commission a remit for sixth form provision enables a strategic view of tertiary education, focused on promoting and facilitating collaboration between providers and reducing duplication and competition.

I would expect the Commission to work with local authorities regional consortia and others to enhance the quality of provision and outcomes for sixth form and FE learners.

This is a natural next step in our commitment to improve learner outcomes, ensure parity of esteem and deliver a ‘level playing field’ in how we measure post-16 performance.

On coming into office and seeing the summer 2016 results, I was concerned that – as a system – we had not paid enough attention to A Level performance.

We have been working hard, with the sector, to introduce a new set of consistent measures.

These will all be in place by early next year and will give us, learners, the sector and employers a much more rounded picture, with a focus on:

  • Learner achievement: measuring completion and achievement
  • Value added: the progress made by a learner relative to that of learners with similar starting points; and
  • Destinations: what and where a learner moves onto.

And these will be published at the national and provider level, to help inform learner choice.

This will ensure consistency and coherence, whilst recognising progress and performance across settings which have different missions, localities and context.

It’s essential that learners are given the information, advice and support they need to choose the right post-16 options.

We do learners no favours by encouraging them to study courses where they have little or no chance of success.

In particular, I do not want to see a situation where A levels are simply a default option, where many learners drop out at the end of their AS level studies, and even more leave without achieving three good grades.

Performance measures

Similarly, I want to share some new thinking on how we better recognise a mixed economy approach within an equitable and excellent public service system.

Our journey towards a new curriculum sets new challenges and opportunities for teachers.

More autonomy;

A better mix of subject skills and knowledge,

Assessment that drives improvement for all learners;

Real and rigorous self-evaluation;

And the delivery of the critical thinking skills that our economy and society needs.

We need an accountability system that will better measure this, focused on progress and the added-value each school brings.

Our current system too often masks how many children are left behind.

  • A focus on the C/D boundary to the exclusion of everything else.
  • No incentives to stretch those who could achieve much more.
  • How the progress and performance of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds is often hidden.
  • And unintended consequences of subject choice and narrowing of the curriculum.

Having already tested new ideas with the profession, and international experts, we will soon announce new measures which will address each of these points, ensuring that every learner counts.

And I predict – and won’t apologise - that we will see some surprises as we go forward.

Many of our better performing schools will continue to be beacons.

In some of those schools, I know that pupils on free school meals outperform their peers, with 70% plus gaining at least 5 good GCSEs.

But I’m afraid that in others – often thought of as very good schools – we see an attainment gap of more than 50%.

I’m afraid that just isn’t good enough, and our new measures will ensure that this is no longer hidden.

It will also better demonstrate that many of those schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged pupils are actually outperforming other schools.

They are achieving this by delivering considerable added value, ensuring significant progress for a majority of learners.

I am also keen – in addition to an expectation that all secondary schools demonstrate success in literacy, numeracy and science – that we provide increased local discretion on other subject indicators.

So whilst it’s right that we are committed to those core subjects that are the building blocks of being an engaged citizen, we should also have a system that better reflects individual schools’ own broad curriculum set within their local context.

Higher Education

Turning to higher education, we will also soon be setting out how Wales can lead the way in how we measure system and provider performance.

I am keen that we recognise that our institutions – excellent as they all are – drive prosperity, knowledge and civic impact in different ways.

Therefore, across a series of high level domains, we should be able to measure those equal but different contributions.

These are likely to include equity of access and value added for the learner, but also economic impact and research and innovation.

We will take this forward in conjunction with our response to the technical consultation, following the conclusion of the Weingarten Review.

Our higher education sector is beginning to lead the way in delivering on its civic responsibilities, particularly on fair work and fair wages.

It also delivers on research excellence, international links and the best possible student experience.

So, whilst a clear separation between teaching and research is now a fundamental to England’s policy and funding structures, we will maintain the benefits of national and institutional links between research, innovation and teaching.

“Linking teaching and research to societal needs and opportunities”, as set out by Professor John Goddard – an expert on the civic mission of universities – is crucial to a thriving and modern sector.

I was pleased – with cross government agreement - to take forward the Diamond recommendation of protecting QR funding - a vital source of income that supports our institutions’ impact, reputation and overall performance.

This, rightly, is managed by HEFCW until our new Commission is up and running.

But I would then expect to see national co-ordination that is even more strategic and dynamic, further strengthened by the recommendations from the forthcoming Reid Review.

I recognise that because of Brexit and changes in the English and UK research landscape, we will need to work together as a sector to win new battles and make the case for funding from new sources.

Over time, I can see a situation where FE colleges could also be part of this picture and draw down future innovation funding that may be available.

I mention this to demonstrate that although we will need to better recognise different missions and strengths, everyone and every institution can contribute to increased innovation and research.


In conclusion, I hope I have been able to set out how we are taking steps to raise standards for all and reduce the attainment gap within an excellent public service education system that is a source of national pride.

Our shared commitment to an education system that works for everyone, everywhere, means we must keep working harder to support the most disadvantaged.

Through targeted resources, more intelligent accountability measures, a focus on leadership and setting high expectations for all, we are well on our way to proving that a modern and equitable system can deliver for all.

All teachers, schools, colleges and universities are contributing to this national mission.

A mission with a clear national purpose, but that empowers teachers, head-teachers and institutions to recognise their own local context and the progress of each and every learner.

No-one’s background should determine their future.

We each share high expectations for every single student, school and our system.

We can prove that equity and excellence go hand in hand.

Together, we are delivering the most exciting and ambitious education reforms anywhere in the world.

Thank You – Diolch yn Fawr.