'Creating space/listening' speech by Jeremy Miles, Minister for Education and Welsh Language.
Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. And we are meeting as the challenges of covid are once again very much uppermost in all our minds, as the emergence of the omicron variant causes new uncertainties and a need for renewed vigilance and caution.
In looking at the last year to eighteen months, I cant think of a more challenging time. And for schools I think the last term in particular has in many ways been the most difficult. The overall context of high rates of community transmission of covid, the protections of the vaccination programme on the one hand coupled with our shared desire to do all we can to keep our schools open on the other, has presented unimaginably difficult circumstances in many of our schools.
There has never been a time when dedicated and inspired school leadership has been more vital. And you have provided that for our schools, the profession and our learners across wales.
So I want to start by thanking you for that. And can I also thank ascl for the positive engagement, the candour and constructive challenge you have brought to our discussions. In a world where there are a range of passionately held opinions, you can’t always expect to agree on everything, but I have always known as education minister that the perspective you bring to bear on the challenges we are facing together, is unfailingly very well informed, constructive, practical and has the interest of our learners ar its heart.
In responding to those challenges, as minister I have sought to listen to your concerns as a profession and where I have been able to, I have set out to take the decisions necessary to give you the space to prioritise wellbeing and learning. Many of you have said to me that despite the pressures of the pandemic, we cannot give up on the education reform agenda which we are all committed to.
So in order to recognise the competing pressures you are facing as a profession:
We suspended performance measures.
We paused school categorisation.
We delayed estyn inspections.
We made adaptations to the implementation of the aln system in the first year.
And of course, I took the decision to provide secondary schools with flexibility to introduce the new curriculum in 2023 if that is what is best for their pupils.
Now, these decisions aren’t universally popular –for example, we know across the border ofsted have been back inspecting schools for some time and that is what some people have demanded here too.
But I give you my word that I will continue to do all I can to provide you with the space you need to raise standards, prioritise wellbeing and support our reform programme.
Now, as a labour minister, it won’t surprise you to hear me say that supporting our most disadvantaged pupils is my number one priority. I really can’t emphasise this enough.
I know that schools and colleges can’t do everything on their own. But, I do see you, our education leaders, as one of the biggest driving forces in our national mission to tackle the impact of poverty on attainment.
One of the first things I did when I became education minister was to instruct officials to undertake a comprehensive review of our approach to tackling the attainment between our most disadvantaged pupils and their peers. Every single policy, initiative, and reform that is considered by my department will be looked at through the lens of whether it effects outcomes of our most disadvantaged learners. If the impact is minimal, then I expect it to be looked at again.
And it’s not just about what skills and knowledge is learnt in the classroom. We must tackle also that poverty of aspiration that we know too often exists for some of our learners.
We need to ensure our young people, whoever they are and whatever their background, believe in themselves, and have a sense of their own worth I want every learners horizons to be as broad as possible. So that every single young person aspires to be the best they can be and can reach their potential.
And our programme for government includes a number of new initiatives as well – all of them designed to support our most disadvantaged learners to succeed, to enable all our learners to reach the highest standards.
For example, we are committed to exploring reform of both the school day and term time dates.
On reforming the school day, you will have seen my annoucement today that we plan to work with a small number of schools to trial providing additional hours of activities each week, with sessions such as art, music and sport, as well as core academic sessions. All of this will be focused on supporting our most disadvantaged learners.
14 schools across wales have been keen to work with us to explore how this can work. But I must emphasise that this is not a policy set in stone – far from it.
That is exactly why we are starting small and trialling it – we want to learn from you, learn what works and what doesn’t work.
Importantly, the schools involved have volunteered – backed by additional funding to support them – to help us with this and I look forward to sharing what we learn widely, so that we can have an informed debate.
Reforming term dates is also something we are interested in.
My starting point is whether our current structure, particularly the long summer holiday, delivers for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. If not, surely it is right we have this discussion?
Over the coming months i’ll be talking to you: our leaders, to young people and their families, to education staff, and people working beyond the sector such as in tourism and public services, to seek their views.
I oftern hear how tiring the school year can be for staff with the long autumn term a particular challenge. So, for example, is it better to have a shorter autumn term, with a guarantee of a two-week holiday? These are the sorts of questions I want to ask. I don’t pretend there is an easy consensus but it’s an important discussion to have.
By taking a serious look at the school year, we can also create the space to be creative in other ways. Is this an opportunity to improve how we support progression at those key transition points from primary to secondary, or from secondary into further education or training?
We won’t be looking at changes to the overall number of days, rather whether can we have a better distribution across the calendar.
This is a genuine conversation, one that is long overdue.
But let me be clear, this is a reform that could directly support our most disadvantaged learners, and how you as leaders manage, plan and support your own and your staff’s workload and wellbeing - and I really look forward to hearing your views.
And our new curriculum will have a strong role to play in in addressing that gap in attainment and aspiration, in creating a culture of aspiration and self-confidence. I wanted to be a lawyer as a child, there were certainly no lawyers in the family. I had never met one. So that might be regarded a strange choice of ambition. But learners in our new curriculum will have a breadth of experience to bring alive these life choices and opportunities in a way I never had, whether or not they are familiar with them in their own lives and circumstances. They will have that tailored learnng, reflecting their own needs that will enable them to chart their own course, whatever their point of departure.
I think it is so important, amongst all the competing pressures that schools face, that we don’t lose sight of what we are trying to achieve with the new curriculum. The curriculum you have all worked on now for many years. A curriculum which puts the learner at its heart, supported by a culture of creativity and wellbeing.
The culture of creativity and wellbeing that you as leaders have fostered and promoted in our schools in responding to the pandemic.
The first of those two qualities – creativity – has been marked. We have had do things differently and in those new ways, we have occasionally found some better ways. And I think we have caught a glimpse of the world which the new curriculum will help us create for our learners in school.
You, your staff and your learners have shown remarkable resilience and flexibility - we must learn from that.
We must continue to empower and enable teachers to inspire their learners: to respond to their learners’ needs and aspirations through the curriculum for wales.
Together, we are building a system powered by purposes and the type of citizens we’d all like to see.
I believe the four purposes – deceptively simple but also radical – are the essentials for the whole education system. Whether in the classroom, on campus, or even in the workplace.
We are bringing knowledge, skills and experiences together – this is not a curriculum that focuses on just one of these - with real equity of access, aspiration and ambitions.
We are empowering each citizen, learner, researcher to aspire to reach their full potential.
This involves testing ideas and evidence, and encouraging questioning and challenge.
This new way of doing things requires more trust in our teaching profession – trust that you deserve. This is why we must grab this chance with both hands.
I know the introduction of a new curriculum is of course a daunting prospect – you wouldn’t be human if that wasn’t the case. This is a generational opportunity to make change for the better.
We have been clear that we will work with our partners to make sure that each school gets the support it needs to progress confidently towards curriculum reform. We will support schools to work together to build understanding and knowledge, and to promote and value the continuous improvement journey we are all on.
And let me be clear: there is no big bang; no final product perfectly rolled out on day one.
This is an iterative process – something you build on each day, working with your staff and learners, raising standards and providing them with a broad curriculum that captures the imagination of our learners.
Our national network is an opportunity to bring practitioners and teachers together to learn from each other on the core concepts and issues around curriculum reform, and we will share the information and knowledge from these meetings so that everyone can benefit.
Welsh government, working with school improvement services, will continue to support the workforce by prioritising professional learning. We are spending the largest ever amount on teachers in welsh education history. But this must be about more than just government providing funding.
Over the coming months, we will be bringing together a package of professional learning support that everyone across wales will be entitled to and benefit from.
And the word ‘entitlement’ is important here – every single teaching professional will be entitled to high quality professional learning.
We will work to make accessing this support simpler; making is easier to navigate the variety of professional learning that is available to both you and your staff. Great resources, easy to find.
Alongside this, we will ensure that the approach to qualifications is aligned with the values embedded in our new curriculum: that they promote deep integrated knowledge, skills and experiences; critical analysis and long term learning; and that they take a more modern approach to assessment, building on what we have learned as a country over the last year.
I encourage all of you to share your expertise and experience with qualifications wales as they undertake their extensive engagement on the detail of the qualifications, in their consultation next year.
I want the reform of our qualifications to match the ambition of the reform of our curriculum.
The second of those two qualities is wellbeing, and it’s my ambition for wales to be a world-leader in putting wellbeing at the front and centre of our reforms.
For the first time, health and wellbeing will have equal status in law to other important areas of the school curriculum.
We will have a stronger focus on developing healthy relationships from early years, helping our young people learn what a healthy relationship looks like and how to treat each other with respect.
In march, we published our statutory framework on embedding a whole school approach to emotional and mental wellbeing. This is a crucial step.
It places real emphasis on the promotion of a positive cultural environment in schools, where key school staff, parents and others work together to create a supportive environment where young people are encouraged to fulfil their personal and academic potential.
Staff wellbeing is equally important. This is a priority for me.
Fulfilled teachers teach better and fulfilled leaders lead better. It is as simple as that.
We have funded a dedicated and tailored package of mental health and wellbeing support services through the charity education support. This includes bespoke peer support and telephone based supervision for senior leaders, a taking care of teachers hub for all education workforce staff, and resilience training with the support of well-being advisors. This support can be accessed by the whole of the education workforce across wales. This is a start – but we must do more. I have tasked my officials to look at what more we can do in this area.
Via our managing workload and reducing bureaucracy group, we are also working with people across the profession to identify key areas which can be removed from the schools’ system to reduce workload and eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy.
A number of practical solutions are currently being considered by the group and by officials, with a view to moving things forward as soon as possible. I hope to be able to say more on this in the coming months.
I want to say something finally about the other part of my ministerial responsibilities – the welsh language. When I was appointed by the first minister I was particularly pleased to be given responsibility for our language alongside education.
This gives us a real opportunity to make sure these two policy areas act together as one. Welsh belongs to us all, however much welsh we have, most people have at least a few words but whether we are confident regular speakers or just use a few words every so often, I want to encourage us all to use the language.
We’ve got big ambitions for our language, and we’ve got big plans to realise them. The first ambition, that we want to see a million welsh speakers by 2050, has made quite a lot of the headlines.
But what about the second of our cymraeg 2050’s main targets - doubling the percentage of the population that speak welsh daily?
This way of thinking goes beyond creating rights indeed it goes beyond creating new speakers. A focus on actual use creates a further level of ambition yet.
I want us to view all our language policy work through the ‘lens’ of usage—does what we do encourage and help people to use their welsh with each other?
And education is central to our vision for language use as well of course, so over time we must ensure many more of our young people come out of the education system ready and proud to use the language in all contexts. As school and college leaders you have a crucial role to play.
Over the coming years, we will take action in ensuring any child in every part of wales has equal access to welsh medium education. We will bring forward legislation that supports our schools and colleges in this, but also to encourage people to carry on learning more and more welsh beyond school as well.
To conclude colleagues, I want to go back to where I began. It has often been said that the true test of leadership is how well you function in a crisis.
In our country’s time of need, the leadership you have shown and continue to show has been nothing short of exceptional.
The young people going through our education system at this time of challenge and often turbulence deserve the same opportunities as any other young person at any other time.
I thank you for all of your incredible hard work in supporting them, and in supporting your staff and repeat that i, in turn will do everything I can to support you.
And I very much look forward to working with eithne and the team over the coming months.