Following the Senedd election in May, our First Minister Mark Drakeford wasted no time in setting out the Welsh Labour government’s priorities to deliver “a stronger, greener, fairer Wales for everyone”. The global pandemic has of course changed the way all of us live our lives. It remains the number one challenge we as a government must face. But that doesn’t mean everything else must simply be put on hold – quite the opposite.
Now more than ever, people expect their governments to step up and deliver, and in many ways the pandemic has intensified the urgency to do so. This is true in education as it is in all parts of the government.
To back people’s aspirations and provide a stronger economy, we need radical action, including strengthening our lifelong learning offer for all citizens. Lifelong learning is fundamental in securing a stronger, modern and prosperous economy. As technological change accelerates, lifelong skills and training must become something that everyone can access.
The Conservatives continue to pursue the marketisation of learning, with English post-16 institutions and sectors fighting it out, often losing sight of what matters: the learner. Welsh Labour are showing there is another way, putting the learner at the very heart of our reforms.
Earlier this month, I published a ground-breaking bill to bring together the funding, regulation and oversight of all post-16 education, apprenticeships, adult community learning and research under one body at arms’ length from the government. For the first time ever, we will enshrine in law national strategic purposes for post-16 education, including the promotion of lifelong learning, equality of opportunity, a sustainable and innovative economy and a global outlook.
This will support my ambition for Wales to become a ‘second chance nation’, where everyone has the opportunity to develop their skills throughout life. If we are serious about narrowing educational inequalities and expanding opportunities, then we must break down barriers and secure easier learner pathways. This radical reforming bill will do just that.
For a greener Wales, we know that radical action, not just words, must be the result of COP26. Real leadership is needed to secure real change – the future of our planet depends on it. Our commitment to the wellbeing of future generations in Wales has been enshrined in ground-breaking legislation since 2015, so every part of government has to play its part. As Education Minister, I want this to shape both what our children and young people learn and where they learn.
We have ensured that sustainability will be a mandatory part of our new curriculum to support learners to become ethical and informed citizens. During COP26, I was pleased to announce that our ‘21 Century Schools and Colleges’ building programme will be relaunched as ‘Sustainable Communities for Learning’, with all new school and college buildings, major refurbishment and extension projects to be net zero carbon, with ambitious active travel and biodiversity requirements.
Hopefully, other UK governments will follow Welsh Labour’s lead. We in Wales want all young people to have high aspirations for their education and future careers – and we must do everything possible to support them to achieve this.
Becoming Education Minister, I have been absolutely clear that every policy we consider must be looked at through the lens of whether it helps tackle the impact of poverty on educational attainment. We cannot allow the pandemic to worsen the ‘attainment gap’ or narrow the horizons of our young people. The Education Policy Institute has recognised that Wales’ funding response to the crisis has led the UK nations, and this funding is heavily weighted towards our most disadvantaged learners – but we can and must do more. Over the coming months, I will set out Wales’ new strategy to ensure that every young person in Wales can achieve their potential.
It is estimated that at least two in five school-age children in the UK living in poverty are currently not entitled to free school meals. The Welsh Labour manifesto therefore pledged that we would review eligibility criteria with a view to extend entitlement for free school meals. Just this week, as part of our cooperation agreement with Plaid Cymru, we announced that over the next three years we will roll out the delivery of free school meals to all primary school pupils. This will make a huge difference in supporting our young people and ensuring they can benefit from a nutritious meal.
A fairer education system is one that better reflects the experiences of its learners and communities. In Wales, we are making the teaching of Black, Asian and minority ethnic histories and experiences mandatory in the school curriculum. But that isn’t enough – the diversity of our teaching workforce doesn’t yet reflect the diversity of our learners. That is why we recently published a wide-ranging plan to increase the recruitment of teachers from ethnic minority backgrounds, including the introduction of financial incentives – again, the first nationwide scheme of its kind in the UK.
A stronger, greener, fairer Wales. The actions and decisions we in Wales have taken since the election show the kind of difference that a Labour government can make.