Kirsty Williams shares her lessons from being in government and her guiding principles for leading and delivering change
James Madison, in the Federalist Papers, described government’s slow-moving, multiple decision making, as“monuments of deficient wisdom”. His advice, even back in the 1780s, was to keep it simple. He said that good government meant two things. Firstly, a complete focus on the object of doing a good job – the well-being of people. And then, simply, the knowledge of the means by which this could be best delivered and attained.
In delivering an ambitious programme of education reforms – which I describe as our national mission – I want to share the lessons I’ve learnt in government, and my guiding principles for leading and delivering change, whilst avoiding those deficient wisdoms. I am clear in my objectives for our reforms. We must raise standards, reduce the attainment gap and deliver an education system that is a source of national pride and national confidence.
Therefore, we are taking a whole-system approach to change. We are reforming our curriculum and assessment measures; reducing class sizes; focusing relentlessly on educational leadership; radically transforming student finance; and establishing a new single strategic approach, through a new authority, for the entire post-compulsory system.
If the three Rs were once considered the basic primary skills, I believe that there are five Cs for leading change in an agile government:
- Confidence; and
- Being a Champion.
Firstly, ensuring coherence across the whole reform programme. Each reform or initiative, such as reducing class sizes or extending our funding support for the poorest pupils, are distinct. But each, through development and delivery, links to the other. Each strengthens the other, and our commitment to raise standards and reduce the attainment gap. Keep on telling the story of why you believe in what you’re doing, and emphasise the links between the changes.
So, we are reducing class sizes by focusing on the largest classes first with the higher proportion of disadvantaged pupils. At the same time we are reforming student finance to ensure that we target living costs support towards those who most need it, across full and part time and post-graduate. Different and distinct reforms, but major policies that are coherent in addressing the injustice that educational opportunity and attainment should not be defined by economic or social background.
Which brings me on to one of my key programmes, introduced as part of budget negotiations when in opposition but now extended as one of my priorities in government. The Pupil Development Grant, formerly known as the Pupil Deprivation Grant. The small, but significant, change of swapping Deprivation for Development better reflects how it works and also emphasises progression and reducing the attainment gap. Establishing and articulating a clarity of purpose is essential to leading change. It helps ensure that we focus on getting at the root of the problems, and what reforms seek to achieve. Of course, policy development and delivering is complex. But one should always be clear about the why, the when, and the what of big decisions and reforms. As you lead and reform, you must also explain. I see it as my job to keep a focus on the fundamental changes, and articulate the difference they will make for pupils, teachers, students and parents. Thinking about that audience is crucial to leading change.
I am conscious that we must build coalitions to deliver fundamental reforms. Yes, a leader has to lead, but I can only deliver with a coalition of the willing. And you can’t always rely on the usual suspects. Trust me, being the sole Liberal Democrat in Government means I have to work hard to win friends and influence people! As I set out to reform student finance for example, it was important to fully engage the NUS. And although we might have nuanced differences on the policy, I have sought to explain and discuss those differences. Which then enables us to focus on the common objective to support students when they most need it. Of course, on the other side Vice Chancellors will demand a different set of objectives and impact. And engaging with them is essential, but I am clear that reforming coalitions can’t be producer led. My focus has to be on the student and parent.
Being bold is important in leading change. But it’s just as important to be confident enough in the big change so that you are able to accept advice and evidence. I’m convinced that reforming our curriculum, alongside measures to change assessment, teacher training and professional learning for teachers, will lead to higher standards. But I also know that no single teacher, no head teacher acting alone, not even an Education Minister, has all the answers or the means to deliver those big changes. I was clear that I wanted to reform higher education and student finance and move away from an unsustainable system. But it was thanks to the work of Sir Ian Diamond and his review panel that we had a pragmatic and principled means to deliver effective reform. It is taking on board evidence and research from Ontario, Australia, America and elsewhere that has influenced our approach to class size reduction.
As Education Secretary I am radical in what I want to achieve, but pragmatic enough to know that the means and models should be based on evidence and best practice. So confidence in leading change has two elements. The confidence of leadership and projecting clear ambitions and objectives; alongside the confidence to listen and seek out views on how to reach those agreed goals.
That confidence brings me onto my final C. Being a Champion. It’s about demonstrating a personal commitment to reforms, to leading change. Quite simply it’s not the job of others to listen and explain. Just as some shops warn that ‘if you break it, you own it’ – for a leader it must be ‘if you reform it, you must own it”. Being a champion for reform brings together a coherent approach, clarity of purpose, building a coalition and projecting confidence. It also means committing to change for the long-term. I’m not afraid of making the tough, but correct, calls on major policies such as student finance, or curriculum changes. But I will only do so if they mean that a future Education Minister doesn’t then have to face the exact same problem. As Bill Clinton used to say “always, always, always have a plan for the future”. By advocating and championing change, you must show that today’s decision is getting it right for tomorrow. Evidence and argument, advocacy and energy – these are what a progressive needs to champion long-term change. Lead from the front with clear purpose, but build your case, build your team. Never be afraid of listening, or seeking advice. But listen to that advice within the context of accepting that change will, and must, happen.
Over the last ten months, and looking ahead, I know that it is coherence, clarity, coalition, confidence and being a champion that underpins my and our ability to lead change. It is a collective effort to reform education, but it is a mission that must be optimistic, innovative and ambitious.