Leadership in Education

(Speech to Incerts conference, 7 July 2016)

I was asked to make a few opening remarks by way of introduction to the conference.

Now this is my first speech in public since the early hours of 6th May this year. Which was quite an occasion. I have said before that there’s nothing quite like being sacked in public on live television at five o’clock in the morning for building character.

Certainly I’ve been very fortunate in my life to read my obituaries not once, but twice.

And broadly speaking I can’t complain about them.

The period since May has been an opportunity for reflection and thinking about new opportunities and new challenges.

It’s been a turbulent time as well of course for the UK with the vote ten days ago for Brexit – not an outcome I wanted to see: but also an extraordinary time for Wales as a nation: in Europe in the football, unprecedented success, but planning to leave Europe politically, in my view against our own interests.

Bluntly, it’s been a good time to be out of politics and out of government. To borrow a phrase, this is the time of unknown unknowns. We genuinely don’t know what the future will bring because no-one had a plan for Brexit – and no-one can yet agree what Brexit means in practice. We have a leadership vacuum at Westminster at a time when leadership has never been more needed.

Leadership in today’s world is about uncertainty: about coping with fast, unprecedented change. It demands resilience. It demands the strength of character to meet challenges and cope with setbacks. It requires flexibility, agility and also humility. Recognition that leaders themselves need to continue to learn. And recognition that leaders need to provide reassurance, and a sense of purpose and direction, even as the certainties of a lifetime are being overthrown.

Back in the 1980s I once heard the American consumer advocate Ralph Nader speak and he said the purpose of leaders is to create more leaders. In education, we have talked for a long time about the need for distributed leadership within the school setting. The module on leadership in the Master’s in Educational Practice which I launched in 2012 goes into this in a lot more detail, drawing on the work of Alma Harris from whom you will be hearing later.

Our Education system depends on distributed leadership. It depends on leaders like you. I had the opportunity, in my most recent role in the Welsh Government, to lead our work on public service leadership across the piece. And when last November, we held our Public Service Leadership Summit with the top 200 public service leaders in Wales, with speakers from all over the world, the person who rocked the room was a headteacher who had recently left Wales after turning round a secondary school not far from here – Joy Ballard of Willows High School, star of Educating Cardiff, whose passionate speech had many of the audience in tears.

I have no question in my mind that many of the top public service leaders in Wales are head-teachers in our primary, secondary and special schools.

And never forget, as leaders, none of us gets everything right all the time. I certainly didn’t. Let me ask you a question: what do Institute of Education Professor Dylan Wiliam and Wales manager Chris Coleman have in common – apart from being Welsh?

They both recognise and respect failure and its role in leading to improvement.

Dylan Wiliam said

Every teacher fails on a daily basis. If you’re not failing on a daily basis, you’re just not paying attention. ….This job is so hard that one lifetime is not long enough to master it.

Just last week, Chris Coleman said:

If you work hard enough and you’re not afraid to dream then you’re not afraid to fail.

I’m not afraid to fail. Everybody fails. I have had more failures than I’ve had success.

And we all know that all political careers end in failure.

One of the public service leaders in Wales for whom I have a great deal of time is the Chief Constable of Gwent, Jeff Farrar. Jeff has a phrase he uses to describe the journey of improvement in his police force, and the challenges facing him and other public service leaders personally. He says:

Success can feel like failure when you are in the middle

And he says that one of the most important things is to hold your nerve. Certainly I think that resilience and willingness to keep focussed on the end-goal remains one of the biggest tasks for all of us as leaders. Professor Rosabeth Kanter of Harvard Business School, recognising this problem of success feeling like failure in the middle, identifies ways of judging whether to continue with a strategy or decide to move on. She says:

Recognize the struggle of middles, give it some time, and a successful end could be in sight.

Those who master change persist and persevere. They have stamina. They are flexible. They expect obstacles on the road to success and celebrate each milestone. They keep arguing for what matters.

It’s over five years now since I gave a speech setting out the challenges I felt faced our education system, listing a 20 point-plan for school improvement. You’ll be pleased to know that I don’t intend to repeat that now, but I have set out the background to that and our approach to school improvement in my book Ministering to Education.

Let me say that I have no doubt that education in schools in Wales has improved hugely since 2011, and continues to improve. Not because I made a speech, or indeed a succession of speeches, but because the education leadership in Wales bought into the challenge we as a government described and responded and worked collectively to tackle the challenges that we faced.

And for those who don’t believe education has improved, let me cite the evidence of the Chief Inspector Estyn in his most recent Annual Report. I will focus on what he says about primary schools since you are overwhelmingly leaders in primary schools gathered here today. The direction of travel, according to Estyn, is very clear:

The proportion of excellence in primary schools has increased over the last five years. Only 8% of primary schools had excellence in some aspect of their work five years ago and this has increased to 18% this year. Two-thirds of primary schools inspected this year are good or better, a little better than last year. …

Standards of basic literacy and numeracy are improving overall, although progress in literacy is more advanced than in numeracy.

And alongside this, says Estyn:

Schools now exclude fewer pupils for poor behaviour, pupil attendance rates are at their highest and the gap between the performance of deprived pupils and others is beginning to close.

So we’ve made significant progress as a system.

One of the key things that we learned as a system was how to use data. Not in a pointless, dull tunnel-visioned way, but as a basis for assessment for learning. Again, as Estyn says:

Integral to the success of the curriculum in good schools is assessment for learning, rather than assessment for bureaucratic purposes. Purposeful assessment helps teachers to plan effectively for the next steps in pupils’ learning and, as a result, it helps to raise standards.

That’s why I am pleased to be here today at this Incerts’ conference. Over the last decade Incerts, a not-for-profit organisation, has assisted primary schools across Wales to track and analyse the progress of students, and indeed to make that activity simpler and more straightforward. 70% of primary schools in Wales work with Incerts and many are members of the Incerts Network. Incerts’ work has also contributed to the development of the new statutory Foundation Phase profile.

I’ve always believed that we can use technology to improve teaching and learning, which is why we invested so heavily in Hwb and Hwbplus and in developing superfast broadband links to schools wen I was the Education Minister. I think Incerts show in a practical way how technology supports school improvement.

We’ve come a long way in Welsh Education over the last decade. I have no doubt that being Education Minister is probably the best job in government because of the opportunity it gives you to help shape the future of Wales. Thank you all for your engagement with that agenda and for your day to day work in enriching the lives of our young people and opening up their life-chances.

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