'This is about Wales growing up'
. But with new initiatives being rolled out with slim resources, she faces tough challenges. Darren Evans spoke to her and forwarded TES Cymru readers' questions
Wales lost pound;400 million in revenue and capital funding in the Government's budget in April. What efficiency savings will you be forced to make and how will that be felt on the front line?
"I have a huge responsibility to protect the education budget at the Cabinet table. Putting education at the forefront, particularly in terms of countering the recession, has enabled us to bring more funding into the pot. We must protect the budget and look for efficiencies to ensure we are spending money effectively.
"We are preparing for the draft budget in October. Investing in education from early years through to post-16 is at the forefront of leading Wales out of the recession. I have made sure the department has benefited from the strategic capital investment fund and that money has gone directly into schools and further education. We are bidding for every new pot that might become available.
"But also we need to ensure there is continued revenue funding to secure the commitment to roll out the foundation phase and the 14-19 learning pathways and to protect the Welsh Bac.
"I will be scrutinised by the budget committee and the profession, but I hope they will see I've done everything I can to secure and safeguard education provision."
How do you expect schools and colleges to properly implement the ambitious aims of the 14-19 learning pathways when you cut post-16 funding? What further cuts will be made next year?
"We put in pound;32.5 million of extra funding for learning pathways last year and that's in the budget for this year as well. We're working hard to safeguard that because it's critical to delivering the 14-19 pathways and to counter the recession. I think the exam results this week demonstrate that learning pathways is already working.
"The learning and skills measure gives statutory entitlement to children and young people for training and education. That requires support and funding. There's no question that the public purse is under pressure and I recognise the responsibility at Cabinet level to ensure that our teachers and lecturers can deliver the learning pathways effectively.
"The transformation agenda is beginning to bite: we have got over 28 proposals coming forward, including partnerships between schools and FE mergers.
"I think people felt very confident that we meant business when I was able to announce substantial capital in July. We can't expect them to deliver on their transformation proposals unless we help them. You can be more efficient and we are more efficient in the way we use and allocate our funding.
"As we get to draft budget time, tough decisions I'm sure will have to be made. But my work has been to safeguard education and protect the flagship programmes; because if we invest in education, if we find the right blend of vocational and academic routes, then we know that those young people are going to be equipped for challenges in the workplace and further education. That's my message to the rest of my government colleagues as well as the teaching profession.
"My department has been at the forefront of leading Wales out of the recession at every level. If we can get young people to want to stay in education that will help tackle the Neet (not in employment, education or training) problem. As the recession bottoms out, it will be the people with skills who are ready who will get the jobs."
Are you happy with the way you handled the progress of the learning and skills measure, given that you were forced to make a series of amendments and back down on the implementation date? What lessons can you learn from that?
"You can look at it from a different perspective: this was a government that had new powers and was determined to extend the entitlement of young people to education and training. So we chose to use our new legislative opportunities, but we wanted to do that in partnership with the teaching unions and the heads who would deliver it. It would also benefit from the scrutiny of our colleagues in the assembly.
"This is about Wales growing up as a nation: we had the opportunity to initiate, shape and amend legislation. I see this as a good example of a mature and competent government that's prepared to listen and make changes for the best outcomes."
But many would say you were forced to back down against your will.
"Certainly not. As a Cabinet minister, I wanted to ensure that this legislation was robust, was going to work and was being welcomed by those who would deliver it. One wants to get these entitlements on the statute book as quickly as possible, but I welcomed the contributions. We wanted to not only introduce the legislation but implement it as quickly as possible, although not at the expense of the evidence that it may be better to have another year before statutory implementation. In many parts of Wales they are virtually delivering what this measure is laying down anyway. It gives those who have more challenges time to catch up."
How will you force schools in Wales to comply with the workload agreement to reduce teachers' workload and raise standards? And how will the "rarely cover" element of the agreement be implemented?
"We have known since 2003 that this would come in, so we have been working closely with schools in terms of preparation and support. A lot of schools are already geared up and have been working to reduce the cover burden. Many schools have reduced it to a minimum, recognising that it's not good use of teachers' time, freeing them up to focus on teaching and learning. We will support schools to get this right."
Many people involved with the school effectiveness framework (SEF) think Wales has a world-beating vision, but some feel it's being sold short and the message is being lost among the jargon. Do you think you are doing enough to publicise the SEF?
"My ambition is for the SEF to provide the national purpose for being in the profession. It doesn't have to be clouded in jargon because it's a simple message, communicating good practice. Roll-out will demonstrate our commitment and it's something where Wales can really be at the forefront.
"It goes back to removing disparities in terms of achievement, recognising that we can raise the bar and narrow the gap. Every child can excel, as we have seen in the results over the past few weeks. Schools can be turned around at both primary and secondary level in a supportive way through the sharing of best practice of teaching and learning."
There's been some heavy criticism of the General Teaching Council for Wales (GTCW) in the past few months. Is it now time to re-evaluate its role?
"The GTCW is an independent, self-regulatory professional body. I resisted proposals to increase the registration fee. My officials work closely with the GTCW and I engage on a regular basis in terms of monitoring meetings. I don't want to comment on operational matters except to say that we have sought from all bodies that we sponsor appropriate restraint in determining pay levels. I believe Wales needs its own general teaching council and we should be robust about being open about its role and delivery.
"This is about developing a mature, appropriate relationship. Nothing can be taken forward without government support and approval. We will be very clear to the GTCW as to what the priority should be."
What issues are high on the agenda and what policies and initiatives can we expect to see coming up?
"To deliver the programmes we have got through partnership and to roll out and safeguard initiatives like flying start, the foundation phase, the Welsh Bac and the learning and skills measure. These programmes are giving Wales the leading edge. We must embed the 21st-century schools programme of capital investment, which means school reorganisation. Over the next two years that is going to be a key priority. The hard work of the teaching profession and school leaders will safeguard education in Wales and take it forward."
Finally, are you planning to stand as a candidate to replace Rhodri Morgan as First Minister?
"I haven't ruled myself out. But clearly we haven't got a leadership contest. Yet. I enjoy being education minister."