Facing the challenges of the classroom

Let’s get to grips with the fundamentals of the Welsh education system, says Kirsty Williams.

“Everyone is in it together”. No, not the hollow tune of Bullingdon Boys Brigade (remember them?), but the recent call to arms from Heather Nicholas, headteacher of Ferndale Comprehensive.

Heather, along with her staff, has transformed Ferndale over the last five years. The effect of a good leader and teachers committed to continuous improvement has raised standards and reduced the attainment gap.

It can sound simple, but is no less crucial or ambitious. At both school and national level we must commit to strong leadership, supporting teachers to be the best they can be, new professional standards, raising ambitions and delivering a new curriculum. Each strengthens the other as we deliver our national mission of education reform.

I have no patience for those who limit our ambitions to just what’s happening across the border. We must aim higher. PISA may divide opinion, but it remains the recognised international benchmark for skills.

As we await the PISA news next week, I think it is important to recognise the steps that have been taken since the last set of results. And I recognise that, frankly, those results weren’t good enough.

The Government at that time rightly took the decision to ask the OECD to shine a spotlight on our system. It revealed Wales’ strengths, but also our weaknesses. That report has been the basis of the reforms being brought forward: providing an excellent professional workforce, developing an engaging curriculum, and introducing qualifications that are nationally and internationally respected. Wales has a clear journey of reform.

However, the report also told us that we should “treat developing system leadership as a prime driver of education reform.” I agree, yet I feel not enough progress has been made in this area. That is why this month I announced plans for a new National Academy of Educational Leadership.
The Academy will develop the current and future leadership talent for Wales and ensure all schools can deliver our new curriculum. Without enthused, valued and skilled teachers we can’t achieve anything.

My vision is to strengthen leadership and make sure that there is greater consistency across our education system. This will involve our schools, local authorities, regional consortia and universities working together.

I’m convinced that teachers should be the best students in the classroom. Learning and developing from best practice, and increasing capacity to manage and lead change. The need for enhanced leadership development opportunities in Wales has been overlooked. I know that effective and enthused school leaders are essential for improvement, and I will continue to prioritise this.
Our national mission is pretty simple – to ensure that all our young people have an equal opportunity to reach the very highest standards. And by driving up opportunities and standards for our poorest pupils, we will raise the ambitions for all.

By getting to grips with the fundamentals of a modern education system – leadership, teaching excellence, equity and wellbeing for learners, and collective responsibility – we will reach the highest standards.

I know that the challenges of the classroom are never simple. Across the country teachers remind me of this. But they also tell me that it’s the most rewarding profession. That is why I want it to be our most respected profession too.

A school cannot be better than its teachers. It’s a simple truth.

Through our reforms, we will support teachers through the new Professional Teaching Standards, promoting ambition, aspiration and ownership. Initial teacher training will be reformed and we will attract more of our best young people to work in teaching. I’m also looking at ways to encourage more mature graduates into the profession.

This is an ambitious agenda, make no mistake. But it is also an opportunity, with each measure linked to our wider reforms of introducing the new curriculum, reducing infant class sizes, extending the pupil deprivation grant and delivering a genuinely self-improving system.

Next week our education system will once again be in the spotlight. Scrutiny is rightly intense. But I have no interest in knee-jerk reactions.

I remain determined to focus on international evidence to drive our agenda. Parents wouldn’t expect us to simply sit back awaiting what’s to come. That is why I recently commissioned the OECD to come back to Wales to provide support and challenge to make sure our reforms are on track.

While I look forward to the full OECD report landing on my desk, the initial feedback from the visit is optimistic about our progress and our long-term vision for Welsh education. They recognise that we’re on a journey and we have to have the courage to see through our reforms for the betterment of our pupils.

The truth is that Wales is in a better place than it has been in a long time, and I want to keep that going – at pace. We must not be blown off course.

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