Raising Standards Together

Kirsty Williams responds to OECD review and commits to properly implementing vision for Education Reform

Speech given at a conference on secondary head teachers, 28 February.

Good morning everyone, bore da pawb.

Thank you for coming together here at the Swalec today as the leaders of our secondary schools.

Raising school standards, reducing the attainment gap and delivering an education system that is a source of national pride and confidence is a collective effort.

No-one – not a single teacher, a head-teacher acting alone and especially not just one Education Secretary, can individually deliver our national mission of education reform.

Shared experience, expertise and effort are at the heart of that mission.

However, as leaders and head-teachers it is your influence, energy and pride which is fundamental to transforming not just our schools, but the future for generations of Welsh citizens.

Even as Prime Minister, Winston Churchill said that “Headmasters have powers at their disposal with which Prime Ministers have never yet been invested.”

And much as I take very seriously my leadership role in setting an agenda and vision, I know that you are the most powerful drivers of change and improvement.

So, you may be relatively small in number - just over 200 secondary head-teachers - but it is you as leaders of your schools, leaders of the profession; and as leaders of change that share the privilege and responsibility of transforming lives and transforming our country.

Now, I have no sympathy with those who use our size as a ready-made excuse for lowering standards and ambitions. I accept that it can bring challenges, but I also know that it should enable us to be nimble, innovative and joined-up.

And, frankly, we need to be better at all these core things.

That is why the aim of a self-improving system is core to our approach. And if you look at many of the high-achieving reform-ready systems, it is countries such as Estonia, Ireland and New Zealand that are leading the way.

And we know this from our commitment to learn from the best and through working with Andreas and his team at the OECD.

I’d like to formally thank Andreas and his team at the OECD for the rigour that they have applied in their scrutiny of our reform journey so far.

I’m sure you’ll be as reassured as me on learning that the OECD has confirmed we are travelling down the right road, we are doing the right things and we have the opportunity over the next couple of days to talk about our next steps.

We have to be asking the right questions, and challenging each other along the way. Yes, my priorities of better leadership, raising standards, reducing the attainment gap and reformed teacher training and development are clear. And I won’t shirk from those. But I am also open to ideas and evidence on what works best in delivering them.

Which is why in September last year, I invited the OECD back to Wales to undertake a ‘rapid education reform assessment’ to take stock of the reforms initiated in recent years.

Their report has highlighted some issues, and made some recommendations which we will need to consider very, very carefully.

But they have also highlighted some excellent work, noting the pivotal role that Pioneer Schools are taking, and also the good progress being made with the development and delivery of the Digital Competence Framework

We’re part way on the journey and I know of the tremendous commitment and energy that’s accompanied every step… so I’m really encouraged that the OECD have indicated that they feel the profession has moved from reform-fatigue to a shared long-term vision and a strong feeling of readiness.

I know from speaking to many of you in the last few months that we share ambitions not just for our own children or our own pupils, but for the system as a whole.

The aim of these two days is to look long and hard at how we are delivering on the vision that was laid out by Professor Donaldson, and also how we continue delivering into the future.

We’ve got the benefit of some excellent speakers and workshops over the course of today and tomorrow. So this is the time to deliberate, ask questions, and to challenge ideas.

But let’s also recognise the progress which we are making.

I was delighted to see the GCSE attainment gap between poorer pupils and their peers close once again last year. That’s down to the hard work by you and your staff.

But, of course, there’s so much more to do to ensure all pupils can reach their potential.

The overall 2016 GCSE results also showed another strong performance with two thirds of our learners achieving at least A* -C, with an increase in the top grades.

But one of the lessons from PISA is that we need to do much more to stretch our highest-achievers, right from transition to secondary through to GCSE and A Levels. We’re working hard through the Seren Network, but I acknowledge that more needs to be done and I’ll be announcing further details in due course.

I would like to remind you that there is a Seren Conference taking place on the 15th and 16th March, and I would urge all schools to register to attend. The event is aimed at both Seren students and teachers, and MAT coordinators.

Please take the opportunity here to call over to the registration desks later to find out more information.

Our national mission means we must have an education system that enables our citizens to compete with the best in the world.

Therefore I would have liked to have seen greater progress in our recent PISA results. Overall we have to admit the results were disappointing.

I know that PISA divides opinion. I hear it from some in the profession. That must change, andmake no mistake, it remains the recognised international benchmark for skills. Countries around the world use it as a signal to entrepreneurs, employers and investors. Just as importantly, it is used to help enhance public confidence in a school system.

You will hear more on this in tomorrow’s PISA session.

But a further message from the OECD’s work – outlined in their 2014 Wales report - was that we should “treat developing system leadership as a prime driver of education reform.” I am clear that the Welsh Government has not done enough on this.

That is why I prioritised the new National Academy of Educational Leadership. Now, more than ever, Wales needs strong leaders that are up for the challenge

As promised, we are involving you in the development of this, and Ann Keane will discuss with you tomorrow how your Academy will inspire a new generation of leaders.

I use the term “your Academy” intentionally as that is my aim - that the Academy is something that you invest in, and that it in turn, delivers for you as professionals.

This is an investment in you, and our future leaders. You are the pinnacle of educators in Wales. You should inspire others, and others should aspire to be in your position.

But let me be very clear - come PISA 2018 if nothing changes, my concern would be the pressure emerging from all corners would be to throw everything up in the air and start again. This is not an idle word of warning… it is reality of the situation we all face.

That said, we are in this together and I have given my commitment to listen to your concerns and to act upon them. And I have done so and will continue to do so.

For example, you are telling me that that you have concerns with the current accountability system. These include issues on coherence, unintended consequences and the relationship between teaching assessments and accountability.

Having listened, I am announcing today a fundamental review of our accountability system which will be shaped by you and our partners.

I want an accountability system that is: Fair; Coherent; Proportionate; Transparent; and based on our shared values for Welsh education.

This means a system with clear roles and responsibilities, which promotes inclusion and equity, and recognises the value that is added by teachers in class across the system.

I am confident that my – and our – emphasis on leadership, teaching excellence, equity and wellbeing for learners, and collective responsibility – will enable us to reach the highest standards.

As a government, we will not shirk from our leadership role, accountable to Welsh citizens. Engaging parents and pupils in our reforms is an essential on-going duty.

But as I hope I’ve made clear today, leadership is shared with you as head teachers, and we must recognise excellence and further develop talent, raising the standing of the profession as a whole.

As part of this, the new professional teaching and leadership standards will come out for consultation later this week. Now many of you will have been engaged in their development already, but please do respond to the formal consultation process.

Opportunities such as this conference are the building blocks for the future. I will give you my full support, my whole backing and trust… and in return I know that you will stand up as leaders and get the job done.

Raising standards and delivering the best for all our students is what we’re all working for.

All people, at all levels – working together, committed to achieving our shared goals.

Working together, to ensure a child’s background doesn’t determine their future. Together, so everyone reaches their full professional potential. Together, so Wales can become a world leader in education.

That is mine, and that is our National Mission. And colleagues, you have chosen to be the leaders of that mission. Let’s do this. We can.

Thank-you – Diolch yn fawr.

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