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Speech by the Cabinet Secretary for Education Kirsty Williams.

First published:
20 March 2018
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Introduction

Good morning everyone. Bore da pawb.

I’ve spoken before about how lucky we are to be able to meet each year like this.

All our head-teachers, alongside our partners within the sector, meeting under one roof, sharing and communicating news, views and best practice.

Few other countries have this advantage.

For our collaborative reforms to be a success, then communication will be key.

Today not only marks the anniversary of the day Alexander Graham Bell received a patent for the telephone, but also when the 1st ever transatlantic telephone call took place.

While today’s conference may not make the history books in quite the same way, it really is fantastic opportunity.

Of course, this conference is not your only opportunity to speak to us. Over the coming years, your feedback will be more important than ever.

Needless to say, we will be asking for feedback throughout the roll out of the new Curriculum.

I consider myself – and I hope you do - a Minister who is keen to listen and appreciate different viewpoints.

As you will know, last summer I took the time to reflect on conversations with teachers, parents, and educators throughout the system regarding the implementation of the new curriculum.

The consensus was that by rolling out the curriculum with care and collaboration, this will provide the right amount of preparation time for schools and teachers.

Not time to stand still, but time to provide feedback, further engage with the new curriculum and be fully prepared for the new approach.

So, the new curriculum and assessment arrangements will be available for schools to feedback, test and refine in Easter 2019.

Following that period, all schools will have access to the final curriculum from 2020, allowing them to get fully ready and prepared for statutory roll-out in September 2022.

We need to hear from you over these two days and also in the months and years ahead.

We’ve moved on a lot since that first telephone call across the Atlantic. That call linked two countries that are over 3,000 miles apart.  With Wales being a small country, just imagine what we can achieve together.

International

Now, of course, being a small country doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think big.

As Cabinet Secretary, one of my first steers to officials was to seek out ideas and evidence from across the world.

All too often in the Celtic nations we view things through the prism of the English experience.

And because of that influence and scale, we sometime forget that policy and principles over the border are the exception to international practice and developments, rather than the norm.

So, over the last 18 months, many of our flagship developments here in Wales are shaped by a truly international perspective.

Our opposition to segregation and selection in schools is based on OECD examples.

The importance of reducing class sizes to help close the attainment gap, raise standards and support teachers, draws on the North American experience in particular.

Our investment in rural education has been informed by best practice in Ontario.

Having been invited to join the Atlantic Rim Collabatory – working with the likes of Ireland, Finland and California – we are able to test our approaches on well-being, reducing bureaucracy and emerging thoughts on accountability and measuring performance.

And our wider reforms to further and higher education are led by research from the very best international leaders and experts.

So, as I often say, to be the best we must learn from the best.

And I’m delighted that we have Steve, Marco and of course Graham, here today to share their thoughts and hear from you.

But I am equally keen that as we innovate, we also influence international approaches.

That’s why we’ve been working with Ireland to update them on our pioneer school model.

That’s why we’ve been briefing Ontario on our curriculum and assessment reforms.

That’s why we’ve been updating Scotland on the success of regional working.

And these aren’t just Government-led initiatives; there are opportunities for teachers and others to get involved.

We must be confident in our reforms, in our approach, in our collective ability to raise standards.

Four enabling objectives

You’ll know that Our National Mission action plan, published last year, sets out the four objectives which will enable us to fulfil our mission to raise standards, reduce the attainment gap, and deliver an education system that is a source of national pride and public confidence.

These four objectives support bringing our new curriculum to life.

Those objectives are:

  • Developing a high-quality education profession.
  • Inspirational leaders working collaboratively to raise standards.
  • Strong and inclusive schools committed to excellence, equity and well-being; and finally
  • Robust assessment, evaluation and accountability arrangements supporting a self-improving system.

Our focus at this conference is on the last objective; robust assessment evaluation and accountability.

Assessment, evaluation, accountability

So, as we develop and design our new curriculum and assessment arrangements questions of accountability are being considered and addressed.

My starting point is that:

School and system level assessment and evaluation will drive improvement for all learners;

We ensure and enhance public confidence in our system;

We better recognise the value added by teachers and schools; and

There is self-evaluation and peer-review at all levels of the system.

Other sessions today will provide more detail of our current thinking, already informed by many head teachers, unions, international experts and evidence, and many others within our system.

Attainment gap

I just mentioned the need to better measure the value-add provided by teachers and schools across the system.

You have my guarantee that we will move strongly in that direction.

We know that, despite our many strengths and improvements, Welsh education still faces many challenges.

None bigger than tackling the difference in attainment between children from our most deprived backgrounds and their peers.
 
I understand that poverty, and its persistent barrier to learning, has its origins well before the school gates. Schools don’t have the answer to every problem.
 
But as Education Secretary it is my job, and as school leaders it is your job, that once these young people are under our care, we will, from day one, support them to reach their full potential.
 
I have spoken many times of my aspirations for a system that complements and combines equity and excellence. It is a key theme of our National Mission.
 
We have made good progress over recent years; the gap has certainly narrowed. That is thanks to you and your staff’s hard work.  We must continue that momentum, continue that focus.
 
The Pupil Development Grant, a policy you know I hold close to my heart, continues to make a big difference in supporting these pupils.
 
Evidence shows that schools are forever learning new and innovative ways of making every penny of this grant make a difference. I urge you all to look at the ever-growing evidence and continue to learn from each other in our ever-growing self-improving system.
 
I am also conscious that while as a government we could pat ourselves on the back for the progress being made, there can’t be room for complacency.
 
We must never lower our expectations for any of our young people, no matter their background – equity and excellence for all.
 
That is why I will make no apologies for keeping the pressure up, rather than taking the easy option and coasting.
 
I welcome the strong action taken in switching pupils from BTEC Science to GCSE Science.
 
This may skew our overall GCSE results, it may make it easy for opponents and the media to attack us.

But, you know what, we can be proud that thousands upon thousands more pupils in Wales are now taking a Science GCSE, as apposed just BTEC. That is raising standards and improving opportunity for all our learners, most of all those from poorer backgrounds.
 
A tough decision, but the right decision.

Achievements

We are achieving much in moving forward together as a self-improving system.

We now have:

  • a regional model for school improvement, based on many of the principles of a self-improving system,
  • strengthened the notion of a self-improving system through the role of schools in providing leadership for others, for example, 
    • the Pioneer Network,
    • the National School Categorisation System with its focus on support,
    • the emerging ITE partnerships,
    • the growing number of schools committed to developing as learning organisations,
    • and many initiatives designed to share subject or leadership expertise

These show that we are using our scale as a system to our advantage.

Thinking big in our ambitions and aspirations, but nimble enough to work together to move forward with shared purpose.

Funding

Now, I didn’t think it right that I didn’t speak to you today without touching upon funding issues.

Many heads have raised with me the issue of school funding.

I know the importance of this issue.  I am someone who throughout my political life has fought, as a priority, for additional funding to support our schools.

As an Assembly Member and leader of an opposition party, I argued for additional school funding every single year in negotiation with the previous Welsh Government, in exchange to support their Budgets.

This lead to the establishment of the Pupil Development Grant – as I mentioned earlier – worth an additional £90m+ for schools every year across Wales.

Since becoming Education Secretary, we as a government have gone even further by doubling this support for our youngest learners.

I have also listened to teachers on the front line who raise with me the problems they face teaching large class sizes. In response, we will be making over this Assembly term £36m to support this new policy.  Many Assembly Members have tried to resist this support – but we have listened to those working on the frontline.

And you know what – it’s not passed me by that there a particular funding pressures.

I hear it often enough, from head-teachers across the country, that time and funding is taken up by school maintenance issues, as opposed to supporting learners.

So, that’s why over the weekend I announced we as a government will be making available an additional £14 million, which is to be allocated direct to schools.

This will address small scale maintenance costs.  Every single school across Wales will benefit from this money, and it will go direct to the front-line.

Yet, believe me when I say that I recognise, even with this additional resource, that school budgets’ are stretched. Times are hard.  The continued austerity agenda has led to the budget for Wales being reduced by well over a billion pounds.  And I am afraid that I don’t see an end to these hard times anytime soon.

The Welsh government will continue to call for additional resources to be spent on our public services, which would mean we would be able to further support our schools.

Yet, I also recognise that funding isn’t the answer to everything.

Improving standards is not just about spending more and more money – if it was, we’d have solved the problems by now.

We can’t simply let a reduced budget reduce our ambitions. Our young people deserve better than that.

Therefore, we all must remain focused on our national mission of education reform: raising standards, reducing the attainment gap, and delivering an education system that is a source of national pride and public confidence.

PISA

Now, I can’t leave you today without mentioning PISA.

Everybody in our system must understand that PISA allows us to judge ourselves against the world.  It remains the recognised international benchmark for skills.

It has never been more important to demonstrate to ourselves, and to the world, that our young people can compete with the best.

PISA may not be in school performance measures, but it is high stakes for our nation.

If you subscribe to our National Mission, which I hope you do, then you must also subscribe to the importance of PISA – as improved results in these international tables are integral to our education system instilling national pride and public confidence that we all wish to deliver.

Conclusion

So, that first transatlantic phone call I mentioned at the beginning of this speech may indeed have been historic, but you know what? The conversation that took place on that momentous call was actually about the weather.

For all of us, here today, it’s less about how we’re communicating, but more about what we’re communicating.

We, as a country, are embarking on exciting reforms that will, one way or another, transform the future lives of a generation.

Their lives, our society – being shaped by people in this room.

If you ask me, that beats talking about the weather.  Together, we’re making history too.

Thank-you

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