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.

Put the Brexit terms to the people


(Published by the Western Mail, 30 June)

The Viking Museum at Roskilde in Denmark has the remains of a longboat built near Dublin in 1042 by Scandinavian boatbuilders as a warship. It’s a reminder, if you like, that links across our continent, forged in war but also by trade, have centuries-old roots that pre-date the era of modern capitalism.

But modern-day Ireland and Denmark may also have pointers for us following last Thursday’s referendum vote for Brexit. For both these countries have had to go back to their electorates more than once to seek endorsement of their relationship with the European Union

The shock of last Thursday’s vote has yet to wear off. The pound has fallen, some banking and other shares have been temporarily suspended, and there is a leadership vacuum in both main parties at Westminster. In Scotland, action is underway to prepare the ground for a second independence referendum, and there is talk of an attempt, unlikely to succeed, to block Brexit. The possibility of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic crystallises the impact of Brexit on the Good Friday agreement. In Wales, Carwyn Jones has called for the final Brexit proposals to be put before Parliament and all the devolved institutions.

In Brussels and Luxembourg, British officials who work for EU institutions are wondering what their legal employment future will be. Beyond the political class, there has been a Great Petition for a second referendum. Meanwhile expats, retired or working in EU member states, don’t know what the future holds. And here at home we have seen an appalling increase in racially-motivated hate crimes, with racists clearly feeling licensed to parade their prejudices in public.

Even now, we don’t know what Brexit means. EU leaders are saying there will be no discussions until the UK triggers article 50. The Leave side still sounds – to be charitable – vague and uncertain as to what it wants. Sooner or later, many of those who voted Leave will find that those things they thought Leave would deliver – more money for the NHS, an end to immigration full stop, access to the single market without EU rules – will never be realised. That will be the inheritance for the next Conservative Prime Minister.

The likelihood is that there will be a general election in the near future, after the Conservative leadership election. Never mind the Fixed Term Parliament Act – no Opposition Party can vote against the calling of a General Election for fear of looking ‘frit’.

So what should Labour say on Europe in that election? I believe it should state, unequivocally, that it will put the final terms of Brexit to the people. That will mean a second referendum. But not a re-run of last week’s vote, which is essentially what the Great Petition demands. Instead, it would be a vote on whether the Brexit terms are better than the status quo of current membership. That’s a real choice, a meaningful choice, free of the mendacious populist distortions of the Leave campaign in the recent campaign. It will be a concrete set of proposals, and people will have to decide whether that is better than what we have at present. It would force the parties to engage with the detail. It would force the media, including the BBC, to interrogate the real choice on offer. It will make it clear that there are no easy solutions to the problems which face us, and which provoked last week’s populist revolt against the elites.

It’s an honest position, and it’s a definitive position. If the people endorse the negotiated Brexit position, then we are out. If they don’t, then that is an absolute recognition that the terms of departure are worse than what we have now. It’s a better choice than Cameron’s folly, which was a vote based on a marginal set of changes that were too obscure to be meaningful to most. It will be a vote on a real understanding of what ‘Leave’ means.

There are precedents, of course, and this is where Ireland and Denmark come in. In Denmark, two referendums were held before the treaty of Maastricht passed. Just before the Danish football team headed to victory in the 1992 Euros, Danish voters rejected Maastricht by a small majority. Denmark then negotiated four opt-outs from portions of the treaty, including European Monetary Union, Justice and Home Affairs and Common Defence. The second referendum in 1993 approved the treaty with the opt-outs.

In 2001 Ireland rejected the Treaty of Nice. After clear statements that Ireland would not have to join a common defence policy and affirming the right of Irish parliamentarians to decide on enhanced cooperation, a second referendum the following year approved the Treaty.

In 2005, France and the Netherlands rejected the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, ending the ratification process of that Treaty, ultimately replaced by the Treaty of Lisbon. Ireland called a referendum on that in 2008 – and again their voters rejected it the first time around. After that the Council of Ministers agreed a statement that other member states would not use the Treaty to reduce the number of permanent commissioners in favour of a rotating system with fewer commissioners, nor threaten Ireland’s military neutrality and rules on abortion. Following that, Ireland voted in favour of the treaty in 2009.

Other political leaders in other member states over time have handled things better than David Cameron. There may be no way back from Brexit. But shouldn’t the people be given a real choice on the actual outcome, not the dishonest promises and unfulfilled – and unfulfillable – fantasies of the Leave campaign? David Cameron and the Tories abrogated leadership over the last six months. They opened the door to populism and lies about what Leave would mean. Labour must now provide that leadership. A clear promise to put the Brexit negotiation to the people could unite the party and win new support for Labour at the general election.