Equity & Excellence: ‘The Welsh Way’

A modern public service education system should celebrate equity, excellence and greater school autonomy, says Education Secretary Kirsty Williams

This is the text of a speech given by Cabinet Secretary for Education, Kirsty Williams, at during a speech at Tramshed Tech as part of Yr Athrofa Seminar Series.


I want to share with you some thoughts on how we partner equity with excellence, within a renewed commitment to public service education: ‘The Welsh Way’.

My – and the government’s – driving purpose in education reform is that we raise standards for all and reduce the attainment gap.

We don’t write off anyone.  We have high expectations –with the right support, at the right time – for all students, schools and settings.  


No-one left behind

Having a relentless focus on standards, great teaching and high expectations for all, inevitably means taking some tough decisions.  We’ve made plenty of those recently; decisions that challenge lower expectations.

For example, we’ve moved away from the practice of GCSE early entry, which meant many students banking a C grade when they could have achieved so much more.

We’ve also moved away from whole cohorts, particularly those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, studying for BTEC Science. We now have nearly 70% of schools entering learners for all three science GCSEs.  Of course, this then distorts ‘national’ results – but it’s the right thing to do to support all our learners.

We’ve also addressed the oversight of failing to stretch our more able, from whatever background, by investing £3m in a new programme, building on the Seren network.

As the educationalist and author of Cleverlands, Lucy Crehan has said:

“The most successful education systems around the world are those that aim to hold all children to higher standards.”

Through our work with the OECD, and with others through the Atlantic Rim Collaboratory, we are in the international mainstream.  It is England that is an outlier: its infatuation with grammar schools for example. Quite simply, they are making a conscious decision to write off a significant proportion of pupils.  In fact, Lucy Crehan goes further and says that the whole rationale for grammar schools is to:

“Offer a refuge for those poor children that do have academic potential, by letting them leave the others behind.”

Some might say ‘that’s life’ – that we need to pick winners and losers at 11 years of age.  But that is not the culture that I will allow to take hold in Wales.

By believing in a non-selective comprehensive system, I admit that we are setting ourselves a challenge, but it is a challenge with a moral conviction.  As a small country, we simply can’t afford to leave anyone behind.


Mixed Economy

In setting high expectations for all, we recognise that learners and providers need different levels of support.

We may not spend most of our time and energy discussing structures, as happens across the border, but that doesn’t mean we prescribe the same solution for all.  Wales’ education landscape offers an exciting mixed economy:

  • Welsh medium, English medium and bilingual schools;
  • Large urban comprehensives and federated rural schools;
  • School based sixth forms, FE colleges and training providers;
  • An increasing number of through-schools; and
  • Research-intensive universities and more locally-focused employer-engaged institutions.

A progressive comprehensive system is a system that suits  every learner’s needs and requirements in their education journey.  We recognise there will be local and regional differences within a connected, collaborative and self-improving system.  This is a strength, not a weakness.


Performance measures

Our journey towards a new school curriculum, within a mixed economy, sets new challenges and opportunities for teachers.  For example, we are looking at more autonomy; a better mix of subject skills and knowledge; and far more rigorous self-evaluation.

I am also clear that Wales needs an accountability system that will better measure this, focused on progress and the added-value each school brings.  Our current system too often masks how many children are left behind.

  • A focus on the C/D boundary to the exclusion of everything else.
  • No incentives to stretch those who could achieve much more.
  • How the progress and performance of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds is often hidden.
  • And unintended consequences of subject choice and narrowing of the curriculum.

Having tested new ideas with the profession, and international experts, we will soon announce new measures which will address each of these points, ensuring that every learner counts.

And I predict – and won’t apologise – that we will see some surprises as we go forward.

Many of our better performing schools will continue to be beacons.  In some of those schools, I know that pupils on free school meals outperform their peers, with 70% plus gaining at least 5 good GCSEs. But I’m afraid that in others – often thought of as very good schools – we see an attainment gap of more than 50%.  I’m afraid that just isn’t good enough, and our new measures will ensure that this is no longer hidden.

It will also better demonstrate that many of those schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged pupils are actually outperforming other schools.  They are achieving this by delivering considerable added value, ensuring significant progress for a majority of learners.

I am also keen – in addition to an expectation that all secondary schools demonstrate success in literacy, numeracy and science – that we provide increased local discretion on other subject indicators.  So whilst it’s right that we are committed to those core subjects that are the building blocks of being an engaged citizen, we should also have a system that better reflects individual schools’ own broad curriculum set within their local context.


Our national mission

Our National Mission is clear:  we will raise standards for all and reduce the attainment gap within a public service education system that is a source of national pride.

Our shared commitment to an education system that works for everyone, everywhere, means we must keep working harder to support the most disadvantaged.

Through targeted resources, more intelligent accountability measures, a focus on leadership and setting high expectations for all, we are well on our way to proving that a modern and equitable system can deliver for all.

All teachers, schools, colleges and universities are contributing to this national mission.  A mission with a clear national purpose, but that empowers teachers, head-teachers and institutions to recognise their own local context and the progress of each and every learner.

No-one’s background should determine their future.  We each share high expectations for every single student, school and our system.  Together, we in Wales will show that equity and excellence can indeed go hand in hand.


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Kirsty Williams AM is Cabinet Secretary for Education

6 thoughts on “Equity & Excellence: ‘The Welsh Way’

  1. More nonsense from a politician in Wales who has watched education standards decline year on year.

    And now she has the gaul to talk about ‘the Welsh Way’. Just what is it that distinguishes those that live in Wales from other parts of the UK? It’s our poverty!

    In this case, our poverty of education.


  2. ‘By believing in a non-selective comprehensive system, I admit that we are setting ourselves a challenge, but it is a challenge with a moral conviction. As a small country, we simply can’t afford to leave anyone behind.’

    So they’ve left everyone behind! As a result they have almost won the race to the bottom of the PISA rankings but the damage is still being done in primary. The worst is yet to come!

  3. Don’t agree with everything but nice to see some fresh thinking about what an education system that has to work for everyone should look like. At last there’s some talk about standards and expectations – let’s get away from all the old excuses, no more ‘poor dabs’!

  4. It’s easy to be critical of Welsh education; the breach with English education was disastrous and we have spent two decades trying to claw back to the (modest) standards achieved in the rest of the UK. We shouldn’t however be un-critical of what Kirsty Williams is saying. Take this for instance:-

    “For example, we’ve moved away from the practice of GCSE early entry, which meant many students banking a C grade when they could have achieved so much more.”

    England saw this failing in their school accountability system 6 years ago and their system has been altered so that only first entries count in league table placings but we shouldn’t ignore the advantages of early entry for THE PUPIL. GCSE is the first encounter for pupils in Wales with the serious nature of external examination and the experience is worthwhile; if they get a “C” then, as long as they continue to be taught and as long as they are entered again for the examination at level 2 with the opportunity to improve, then early entry can be very positive; pressure is released and the pupil has a real sense that they can better their position.

    Some schools sensibly give pupils an option; if the pupil gets a “C” in English but a “D” in Maths do they want to have extra Maths lessons at the expense of English lessons? This effectively gives pupils from poorer backgrounds the advantage that middle class parents take for granted; extra tuition after school very often allows middle class pupils to achieve their good results . Certainly my own kids had help outside school; an overlooked inequality which is shown up in England by Grammar school entry:-

    “Around 70% of those who received tutoring got into a grammar school, compared to just 14% of those who did not.”

    It’s all well and good sneering at the Grammar school system Kirsty and yes it does favour the educated, better off middle class but look seriously at your own backyard; don’t remove the ability of schools to give extra tuition within school time and remember that we have our own highly discriminatory school system….we call our elite schools “Welsh Medium”.

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