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Welsh-medium lessons improve prospects for all

As the school term draws to a close and Assembly business concludes for the summer, I can reflect on a busy few months for education in Wales.

Our agenda for education is at a point of real change and transformation. In recent months we have seen significant progress in the Assembly government meeting its One Wales commitments on Welsh-medium education and post-16 learning, as well as our school buildings programme. All of these are crucial policies that will affect every learner.

Now more than ever we need an education and training system that delivers the maximum return for the investment we make as a nation. That means offering the widest possible range of education and training options and the highest quality education to all pupils. It also means doing this against the backdrop of falling rolls and limited resources.

While some schools are experiencing a decline in pupil numbers, others - especially Welsh-medium - are seeing a rise in demand for places. In response to parental demand, an area highlighted for development in our strategy is to provide national direction to ensure better planning of Welsh-medium provision across all phases of education and training.

We are consulting on the strategy, which builds on our commitments under Iaith Pawb, outlining how the Assembly government will work towards creating a truly bilingual Wales. We want to develop and improve opportunities for Welsh-medium learning and ensure provision meets the growing demand.

A significant part of our proposals is to support Welsh-medium provision as an integral part of the 14-19 Learning Pathways and Skills agenda. There is a growing demand from employers for people with Welsh language skills. In a competitive world, we need a more highly skilled population. Everyone must be able to develop their capabilities fully, both to optimise their own life chances and make a greater contribution to the economy and the community. Post-16 education plays a crucial role in shaping individuals for these growing challenges.

Our policy "Transforming Education and Training Provision in Wales" challenges post-16 providers across Wales to find new, collaborative ways to meet these changing needs. Evidence shows that no single provider can deliver everything that is required by learners in their area and I am pleased with the proposals that have been put forward, which are designed to move us into an era of flexibility, greater efficiency and wider educational choice.

The challenge now is to make it happen. We must ensure plans to remove duplication between providers and expand the range of courses available in each area are put in place. We have always been clear that the changes must be tailored to the specific needs of each area.

In the proposals we have received, different areas have taken different approaches. Some are bold and well advanced. Some recommend arrangements that maintain a sixth-form presence while forging partnerships with further education. Others are planning collaborative arrangements that encompass higher education and work-based learning.

Clearly, some areas can move faster than others. But we don't have the luxury of allowing a delay. About 60 per cent of local education partnerships tell us they expect to be implementing approved collaborative arrangements by September 2010 and we would expect the rest to be on stream a year later.

Proposals to unify post-16 provision could drive educational change and stimulate the creation of jobs and businesses in disadvantaged areas. For instance, we are developing educational facilities in the Heads of the Valleys that will lead a drive to boost performance and prospects in an area with one of the lowest skill levels in the UK.

Recently, I announced Pounds 12.2 million more capital funding for education programmes in Wales and to kick-start some of the larger transformation projects.

But it is not only the post-16 sector that is being transformed. Many schools are benefiting in the transition towards our 21st-century schools initiative. In March, I announced that 40 schools and colleges would benefit from nearly Pounds 109m from the Assembly over the next three years. Part of this will pay for 12 new schools and 10 significant refurbishment schemes in 2009-10. As part of the One Wales agenda, this government has committed to deliver schools fit for the 21st century. Schools and colleges in Wales need to be places that inspire our young people, with highly professional and motivated staff.

At the heart of our visionary policies is a commitment to give children in Wales the best start in life, by providing a first-class education for all children, whatever their social origins and wherever they live. To achieve this we need more collaboration between local authorities and others to plan provision across the spectrum including Welsh-medium and post-16 education.

By working together, we can build on our successes since devolution and realise our vision of Wales as a "learning country".

Jane Hutt is minister for children, education, lifelong learning and skills.

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