The Welsh Government’s new education strategy has been launched by Education Secretary Kirsty Williams. Gareth Evans reflects on its content and Wales’ new long-term vision for education…

Teachers, policymakers, union leaders and other key players on the Welsh education scene will have been forgiven for breaking into a cold sweat as they walked into the National Museum last Tuesday evening.

For this was the scene of the notorious ‘Teaching Makes a Difference’ speech and unveiling of the Welsh Government’s unwieldy 20 point improvement plan.

As I took my seat in the Reardon Smith Theatre, I still had Leighton Andrews’ stinging barbs ringing in my ears.

It’s been six and a half years since the former Education Minister’s ruthless call to arms – but it will take a lot longer to banish that from memory.

This time it was the turn of Kirsty Williams to present her vision for education in Wales and with it, a more optimistic view of the challenges ahead.

There is much to welcome in ‘Education in Wales: Our National Mission’, not least the noticeable change in tone.

In it, Ms Williams cites the “solid foundations” on which her plan of action is built and her confidence that “we are heading in the right direction”.

“These are exciting times for education in Wales”, she adds.

Compare that with Mr Andrews’ reference in 2011 to “a complacent system” facing “crisis”.

These are very different times. I know what you’re thinking – a new minister, another new education strategy.

Well, yes and no.

The document has been re-branded with a new title and slogan.

But, to all intents and purposes, the content is broadly the same – only more polished and, in my view, more credible.

What Education in Wales: Our National Mission does that its predecessor, Qualified for Life (2014), doesn’t is back up words with actions.

A list of timeless interventions has been replaced with a tangible delivery plan, focused on outcomes.

There appears to be more coherence between the different ‘enabling objectives’ and the Welsh Government has, without question, tightened up its narrative.

Time after time, we in Wales have stood accused of lacking an overall vision for education.

The influential Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) encapsulated what it considered one of our biggest problems in its report on Wales in 2014.

Put simply, it said: “The pace of reform has been high and lacks a long-term vision, an adequate school improvement infrastructure and a clear implementation strategy all stakeholders share.”

Education in Wales: Our National Mission represents the Welsh Government’s attempt at addressing the OECD’s concerns.

There is a much-needed definition of the ‘self-improving system’ and learning organisations (the first, as far as I’m aware, in the Welsh context) – and clarification as to the roles and responsibilities of all key stakeholders.

But so too are there more subtle adjustments.

As strange though it sounds, it is very easy in tub-thumping education strategies to lose sight of what matters most.

Policymakers can get caught up in process and the task in hand, without due consideration for the learners themselves.

What pleases me most about Education in Wales: Our National Mission is Ms Williams’ vision for our children and young people.

“Our learners will be resilient, imaginative, compassionate and ambitious – they will aim high and achieve their goals,” she says.

“Parents and carers across the country must have confidence that their children attend schools that are preparing them well for their future lives, led by teachers who are passionate and talented, and that deliver qualifications that equip them for personal, national and international challenges and opportunities.

“Our nation needs compassionate and well-rounded individuals who not only have a strong grasp of literacy, numeracy and digital competency, but also the critical thinking skills, imagination and resilience to excel in – and create – the new jobs of tomorrow. We must ensure that every voice is heard and no child is left behind.”

Ms Williams articulates clearly her lofty expectations for learners engaged in Wales’ education system.

And they are not to be compromised by “geography, deprivation or childhood experiences”.

The document’s big headline is, of course, slippage in proposed curriculum timelines – but a staggered roll-out seems entirely sensible.

Curriculum reform, guided for the most part by the profession, is an organic process that cannot be rushed.

It is far better to take our time and get Successful Futures right, than force it through and get it wrong – the consequences of doing so are unthinkable.

The elephants in the room are funding – and the impact a strain on public finances will have on delivery – and PISA, which is afforded very little air time considering the huge political cachet it carries.

And aside for the annual publication of a ‘Wales Education Report Card’ (the last of which read like a promotional pamphlet), it is not abundantly clear how policymakers will be held accountable for implementation.

Nevertheless, Education in Wales: Our National Mission is a far more rounded document than those which went before and a newfound sense of unity is a recurring theme throughout.

There is no feeling of ‘us and them’ and Ms Williams insists that “by learning together we can develop a better Wales”.

This is symbolic on a number of levels, not least that the Welsh Government accepts it does not have all the answers and cannot by itself bring about the level of change required.

This was personified by the Cabinet Secretary taking the time after the document’s launch to mingle with assembled guests.

She did not, as previous ministers have done, dive off into a waiting chauffeur-driven car.

The fact she took the time to send a hard copy of her action plan to schools – in addition to the more customary emailed version – is further recognition of her desire to engage meaningfully with the profession.

Even the smallest of things make a difference.

So, as we filed out of the National Museum, there was a genuine feeling of positivity and hope that we are embarking on a new and prosperous era for Welsh education.

And it was for that reason I declined an invitation to the new dinosaur exhibition.

Fingers crossed Education in Wales: Our National Mission will outlive its ancestors – goodness knows Welsh education has enough skeletons in the closet already.

  • Gareth Evans is Executive Director of Education Policy at Yr Athrofa, University of Wales Trinity Saint David