Speech by the Cabinet Secretary for Education Kirsty Williams.

First published:
5 January 2018
Last updated:

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Introduction

Thank-you.

I was proud in September to publish our new National Mission education action plan.

Proud because it wasn’t a document cooked up in a government back office.

Instead it was the result of careful consideration with teachers, international experts and many others.

Together we own that action plan.

The overall objective of the mission is simple, clear and ambitious.

Together, we will raise standards, reduce the attainment gap, and deliver an education system that is a source of national pride and enjoys public confidence.

We know where we’re going.

We share a mission.

We believe in the importance and power of education to change lives, to make a difference, to represent who we are as a nation.

To deliver on those promises, we in Wales, us in this room, and in classrooms across the country, have a unique opportunity to shape the very essence of our education system.

Curriculum

By introducing a transformational new curriculum together, we have set ourselves a big task.

I make no apologies for that.

Our new curriculum will represent what we want - what we expect - the citizens of the future to become, to know, and to have gained from their teachers.

But the process of working together to shape that curriculum also represents what we want from the Welsh education system.

A profession that collaborates; that is open to new ideas; that is always learning and that seeks to raise standards for all pupils.

I’ve been lucky over the last year to meet Ministers and Educationalists from North America, across Europe and further afield.

They all know that the way in which we’re undertaking these reforms – the Welsh Way – is founded on collaboration, creativity and confidence.

They are watching on with great interest, and keen to learn from our approach.

In shaping the curriculum together, we - all of us - have invested in a shared, national mission to inspire healthy, enterprising, confident young people, equipped with the knowledge and skills they need now and for the future.

For some, I know this path we’ve taken has been a test of endurance, but the title of this conference is ‘Turning the corner’ – and that is exactly what I feel we are doing – together.

Collaborative approach

Since my very first day in this job, I have been committed to listening to all views, especially people working on the frontline.

As my officials will know, I always want – I need – to hear all advice and views. Not just those that provide easy and simple answers.

Trust me on that, a Liberal Democrat who is reforming tuition fees, isn’t a Minister who takes the easy option!

And on the curriculum, I listened and paid full respect to all views and concerns.

I’m not afraid to take the tough decisions, if they are the right decisions.

By rolling out the curriculum with care and collaboration we are now providing the right amount of preparation time for schools and teachers. This should also bring about more confidence in how we approach the next few years.

The new curriculum is a once in a generation opportunity. Together, we must get it right.

There can often be a danger, when setting something as transformational as this in motion, that we lose the momentum.

But with the approach that we’ve taken in Wales - an approach of genuine co-operation – we will get this right.

We can not, and must not, take our foot off the gas. We must continue at pace.

School examples

And so it’s encouraging to see the excellent work being done with consortia and schools.

For example, I keep hearing - and I have seen - great things from Cadoxton Primary, a pioneer school in Barry who are working with a non pioneer cluster on sense making and preparing practitioners for the new curriculum.

There’s Phillipstown primary school in New Tredegar, working with its cluster schools to develop their readiness and understanding of the curriculum reform, alongside its implications for practitioners.

And Bassaleg Comprehensive school in Newport, they’re working with its cluster on a literacy development project, based around the language, literacy and communication Area of Learning Experience.

So, plenty of good work underway, and I know there are many more examples.

It’s this joined-up working that will make all the difference when it comes to actually – truly – realising our shared vision.

Early entry

Now, on this journey, we’re of course not always going to agree on everything. That is to be expected.

I understand the concerns some of you have raised with regards to Early Entry. I really do.

But, again, I will stay true to my principle that I’ll always be willing to make the tough, difficult decisions, if they are what I believe to be the right thing to do.

GCSEs are designed to be sat after two years of teaching, not one.  I want young people to be able to access a broad and balanced curriculum.

I believe there are far too many pupils who are not being allowed to reach their full potential.

Over recent years too often we are seeing pupils achieving a C grade on early entry and not re-entered.

That is simply settling, rather than challenging.  It is holding our young people back. And that, I feel, is a lack of confidence.

It’s a lack of confidence in our students, and it’s a lack of confidence in ourselves.

Qualifications Wales’ findings were clear. They found that the widespread use of early entry poses a significant risk to learners and our examination system.

I have acted on their independent findings which recommended we should take a first entry counts approach. But I have also listened to schools’ concerns.

When a not dissimilar move was announced in England, on a whim, schools were forced halfway through the year to respond to these changes in a matter of days. A matter of days.

We do things differently here. We listen. We work with the profession.

I recognise that schools need time to plan their teaching, learning, and their approaches to GCSEs.

Therefore the changes to performance measures will take effect for summer 2019 reporting. The freeing up of November first entry for English and Welsh Language is a matter for the regulator, but I expect this to be available to schools in the next academic year.

Let me be clear: this is not a ban on early entry.

This change solely relates to how we will consider school performance; encouraging schools to enter learners when they are ready to gain the best possible result.

If we are always committed to putting the interests of learners first, and ensuring they reach their full potential, then we can be confident that together we will continue to raise standards and reduce the attainment gap.

Class sizes

Now, I’ve been on a personal journey as well.

As you may know, as a Liberal Democrat Assembly Member, I negotiated with the First Minister a Progressive Agreement when becoming Cabinet Secretary.

We agreed shared priorities across a number of portfolios.

I wanted to give you a quick update on some of the progress we have made in the first year in some of the school priority areas, covering primary and secondary.

Firstly, I was clear throughout the Assembly elections that I shared parents and teachers’ concerns about infant class sizes.

International evidence shows that the effects of a reduction in class sizes are greatest in the youngest age groups and pupils from poorer backgrounds.

I recently discussed this with the Ontario Government.

They – a world-leading education system - have invested in reducing class sizes, and have seen a positive impact in their provincial and international assessment scores.

Based on the evidence, our investment will target schools with the largest infant class sizes, where teaching and learning needs to improve, and where there are high levels of deprivation.

We have made the funding available to local authorities who have been required to submit a business case setting out proposals how their schools will benefit from this significant investment.

I will be honest. I have had much resistance to this policy in the National Assembly.

But I have listened to parents, listened to teachers and listened to international evidence.

Rural schools/Broadband

The challenges facing rural schools are also regularly raised with me – I see it in my own patch.

This includes falling pupil numbers, access to resources and difficulties in recruiting.

In response, we have introduced a new rural and small schools grant to promote innovation, support school to school working and raise standards.

Your Local Authorities have submitted their plans for expenditure, these have been assessed and they have been advised of their allocations.

The first tranche of grant will be paid in December.

I want to ensure that every school and community receives a fair hearing.

Which is why I have consulted on strengthening the School Organisation Code in respect of a presumption against the closure of rural schools.

This doesn’t mean that rural schools will never close, but the case for closure must be strong and not taken until all viable alternatives have been properly considered.

The consultation ended at the end of September and we are in the process of analysing consultation responses.  A summary of which will be published before the end of the year.

Rural schools, in particular but not exclusively, have sometimes missed out on broadband access.

Therefore prioritising schools’ access to superfast broadband was a key part of the agreement with the First Minister.  We have since announced £5 million worth of additional investment to support this area.

Mental health

Another feature of the agreement was improved mental health services.

Time and time again I speak to Heads and teachers who tell me of the inordinate amount of time they have to spend chasing social services to ensure pupils get the support they need.

We clearly need a more linked-up system. The Health Secretary and I have therefore announced pilots, covering the North East, South East and West Wales, to operate in secondary, middle and feeder primary schools.

This will deliver dedicated CAMHS practitioners working with schools to provide teachers with on-site help and advice, ensuring pupils experiencing difficulties receive early help.

If the pilots prove to be successful, which we are confident they will, then this is a model I would like to expand across the country.

Leadership academy

Finally, and you will know this better than anybody, it is clear to me that to succeed, every school needs inspirational leaders, setting direction and leading the way in your own school community.

I believe the establishment of our National Academy for Educational Leadership is an important step forward.

Set alongside new professional standards, reforming Initial Teacher Education, and curriculum reform, it is part of a coherent and collaborative approach to leadership development.

The Academy will develop current and future leadership talent for Wales and ensure all schools can deliver our new curriculum.

Since announcing the establishment of the Shadow Academy Board last November, I have been greatly encouraged by the steady progress that has been made in a short space of time.  I expect this momentum to continue so that, by Summer 2018, the Academy will be fully established.

Conclusion

Now, I started this speech talking of how we, together, are on a journey. An expedition.

To conclude, I would like to reflect on the Lewis and Clark expedition, early in the 19th century.

Meriwether Lewis, a Welsh-American, and William Clark led an 1804 expedition through uncharted America through to the Pacific Northwest.

Lewis, Clark, and the rest of their team began their journey in Missouri – a place that is close to my heart after studying there, when I was young and carefree.

Right now, that feels like a very distant memory!

This group of explorers – often called the Corps of Discovery – faced nearly every obstacle and hardship imaginable on their trip, but we can’t even begin to calculate the influence of that expedition.

They were able to map the newly acquired territory and found a practical route across the western half of the continent, claiming it for the United States.

There is no doubt that the expedition of Lewis and Clark forever changed the course of American history.

And you are on a journey of similar significance, right here, right now.

You have the opportunity of mapping a future, making the claim for a better way to deliver education.

Something that will deliver not just for now and for today’s citizens, but building something for tomorrow’s Wales.

There's no fixed map hidden away in a drawer in a government back office for you to follow on our curriculum expedition, and there will be challenges to overcome on this unchartered territory.

But… You are the mapmakers.

We are turning the corner. Together we will map the journey.

But it is how you commit to leading the way that is crucial to reaching our destination.

It is you – as individuals, as a collective, as leaders – that are changing the course of our education story. Turning that corner towards a bright, confident future.

Thank you very much, diolch yn fawr.