Kirsty Williams – 2016 Speech to Liberal Democrat Party Conference

Below is the text of the speech made by Kirsty Williams, the Welsh Cabinet Secretary for Education, made at the party conference on 19 September 2016.

Conference, it’s great to be here today and to be a foot soldier in the Lib Dem fight-back.

And in Wales we’re fighting back, in government, on behalf of pupils and parents right across the country.

As Education Secretary in Wales, I’m still relatively new to Government.

Many of you here will have had the honour of leading your local councils.

Many drove devolution forward in government in Scotland and Wales previously.

And of course, many of our friends held some of the highest offices in the land during the coalition government.

Nick’s decided to call his memoir ‘Between the Extremes’. I’ve been taking some tips, and of course some of the warning signs.

But if he really wanted to experience the extremes, he should try the current Welsh Assembly.

UKIP leading Plaid and the Tories in a merry dance in opposition, pulling stunts such as the initial failure to elect the First Minister.

As the song goes, clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right….

Now, this is the first time I’ve spoken with you since the Assembly Elections.

While the result wasn’t one any of us would have wanted, I am immensely proud to have been part of a group that was, no doubt in my mind, pound for pound, the strongest and most effective in the Assembly.

I’ll be honest, being left on my own, as the sole Welsh Liberal Democrat, hurts.

But you know what makes it worse? The fact that when I look around the chamber, it is UKIP Assembly Members that replaced us.

Welsh Liberal Democrats out, UKIP in.

Never could you find two more opposing parties.

We see diversity and tolerance as a strength, not a weakness.

Farage sharing a platform with Trump says all you need to know about what they believe.

You know, in my first Education questions in the Assembly, all of the opposition parties had the chance to scrutinise my decisions.

Plaid’s spokesman stood up and asked his three questions. The Tory stood up and asked his.

UKIP?… Well he stood up… but no questions came.

Mark Reckless, you may remember him, well he let the opportunity pass by saying he had no questions this week.

Well, UKIP’s politics of intolerance, indolence and insularity will never be the answer.

Not this week, not this month, not ever.

Neil Hamilton, another blast from the past who decided to cross the border and try his luck in Wales, thought it okay to launch a sexist tirade in his maiden Assembly speech.

And when I say “crossed the border” – I mean that he crosses the border each and every day when he drives all the way from his Wiltshire home to Cardiff to take up his seat in the Assembly. Yes really!

(No wonder they supported our campaign to scrap the Severn Bridge tolls!)

Conference, I worry that the Brexit vote showed us that perhaps we progressives and liberals have rested on our laurels.

Our victories on feminism, gay rights, devolution, widening access to education, tolerance in society – they may be more fragile than we ever imagined.

We must keep making the case that these advancements are for the benefit of all.

A tolerant, more educated and liberal society is a better society for everyone.

That cause must be our motivation to get back out there, work hard, fight for our communities, and start to rebuild our party.

It can’t be done overnight, but in next year’s local elections, remember our values, then remembers theirs.

Conference, the local elections will we be our chance to start to rebuild, and we must take it.

Of course, following the election, I stepped down as leader after eight years – a role that filled me with immense pride.

But the time had come for someone else to lead to help rebuild and rejuvenate our party.

Mark Williams, who is a good friend, was always there when I needed support and advice. I will now repay that favour.

Mark, there is no-one I trust more to take this great party forward.

And of course the unexpected happened, I was offered the role of Cabinet Secretary for Education.

Conference, the decision whether to take the role wasn’t easy.

I’d spent the last decade holding the Labour Government in Wales to account. Lambasting their failings, nowhere more so than on education where Wales continues to struggle in international tables.

But there were two over-riding factors that swung the decision for me.

Firstly, I am in no doubt that in the eyes of the media, having just one AM was the equivalent of none.

We may have had a seat in the chamber, but we would be ignored – no media coverage, no FMQs, no nothing.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats silenced.

So, I took my agreement with the First Minister to a special conference. It was essential that members across Wales got the opportunity to debate and vote on delivering our manifesto.

And make no mistake, I am in government as a Welsh Liberal Democrat, guided by our values and commitments.

I’ve been fortunate to receive the support of friends, family and fellow members over the country in the last few months.

Everyone is clear that education has always been our number one priority.

It has to be: From it, stems everything we believe in.

It is our national mission that every child, no matter who they are or where they are from, has the opportunity to be the very best they can be.

I want parents dropping their kids off at the school gates to know that they are opening up the world of possibility to their child.

Every parent should have confidence that their son or daughter goes to a school that helps them grow as capable, healthy and well-rounded people.

And every parent should be able to trust the schools system to enhance their child’s opportunities, rather than hold them back.

Wales once led the way on education, parents once had that belief.

Conference, it’s my job to rebuild that belief. It’s our job to rebuild that belief. And that is what we will do.

Now, one policy that it seems the opposition is not happy with, is our plan to cut class sizes.

I’ll let the Tories and Plaid make the case to their constituents that large class sizes are a good thing. I wish them luck with that endeavor.

For teachers and parents, large class sizes are a major issue. The Welsh Liberal Democrats share that concern.

Our plan will be aimed at reducing the largest classes first, and in particular those that have a high proportion of children who qualify for free school meals.

Evidence time and time again shows that reduced class sizes can help close the attainment gap between the poorest pupils and their peers.

This policy will be linked to other reforms that will create space for teachers to teach and pupils to learn.

Our opponents are determined to paint this as a binary choice: either invest in class sizes or in teaching.

Let me be clear: they are not mutually exclusive.

Conference, the Welsh Liberal Democrats will invest in both.

Nothing proves more that we are the party of education than the fact that the Welsh Liberal Democrats prioritised education spending in budget negotiations in the previous Assembly term.

For five years, in negotiations with the Welsh Government, we consistently fought for more investment into our very own Welsh Pupil Premium, also known as the Pupil Deprivation Grant

In England, we dragged the Tories kicking and screaming to introduce this progressive policy.

In Wales, we did the same with Labour.

I will never grow tired of hearing of the homework clubs, the one-to-one tuition and the extra resources that children are getting because of us – because of the Welsh Liberal Democrats.

Helping to deliver this from outside government was one of our proudest achievements.

That is why today I am announcing that it is my intention to double the Early Years Pupil Premium.

Concentrating extra resources on our youngest pupils.

Because it is our mission that every child deserves a fair start in life.

That is the benefit of a Welsh Liberal Democrat sitting around the cabinet table.

Conference, inside of government or outside of government – equal opportunity will always be our priority and it is what we will deliver.

Now, why is it that some terrible ideas simply never seem to go away?

Yes, I’m talking about grammar schools.

In England, the Tories are still banging this tired old drum, they do so in Wales too.

For them, dogma and doctrine rule the day.

As Education Secretary, evidence will guide my decisions.

And Grammar schools tick all the wrong boxes:

– Writes people off at the age of 11, lowering their aspirations – tick

– Gives the majority of pupils a second class deal – tick

– Excludes children from poorer backgrounds – tick

And to think Theresa May made this announcement under the banner of working for everyone.

Clearly irony is not dead.

Grammar schools are a policy based on myth, not evidence.

Proportionately, these selective schools have the lowest levels of children from poorer backgrounds.

Fewer than 3% of grammar school pupils are on free school meals, compared to 20% across England.

I won’t deny that there are big challenges in the Welsh education system. But all of our polices will be targeted to raise standards and address the enduring injustice of the attainment gap.

As Education Secretary, I am pursuing ‘made in Wales’ polices, shaped by the best from around the world.

In contrast, the Tories are intent on ignoring international evidence.

The OECD find that the best performing school systems do not segregate pupils.

Let me be clear conference: social mobility, opportunity and excellence in our schools will drive our agenda.

Mark my words, under no circumstance we will be seeing an expansion of grammar schools on my watch.

Under the Welsh Liberal Democrats, every child will have the opportunity to succeed. Every child.

In this new role, I also have responsibility for Higher Education.

Now, I have no interest in raking up old arguments from the past. The key is that we learn from mistakes.

That is why, ahead of the Assembly elections, I was up front and entirely clear with the nation that the Welsh Government tuition fees policy was unsustainable.

I was also clear that it was living costs, not fees, that are the barrier to poorer people enrolling at university.

Later this month, Sir Ian Diamond will be presenting his independent, cross-party review of higher education funding in Wales.

I have set out clear principles that I hope and expect the Diamond review to meet:

One: I want a progressive system that maintains the principle of universalism and ensures a fair and consistent approach across all levels of study

Two: I want a system that ensures shared investment between government and those who directly benefit.

Three: Student support should be portable for Welsh students anywhere in the UK.

And finally, this system must enhance accessibility, breaking down barriers that reduce social mobility.

Conference, not a single HE system in the UK meets these tests.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats will change that.

Now, the Liberal Democrat Constitution states we believe in a society “in which no-one is enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”.

In Wales, our party has been given the chance to put our principles into practice.

We believe in Freedom. Freedom of the individual, so everyone has the opportunity to be who they want to be and reach their full potential.

We believe in Fairness – for diversity, against intolerance – the voice for the voiceless.

And we believe in Community. Where we as individuals work together for the common good – a nation acting together to ensure that all benefit from an equal opportunity to reach the highest standards.

Education is not just a rehearsal.

It’s not simply the process of preparing our youngest people for the future workplace. It’s more than that.

It involves learners of all ages,

a united teaching profession committed to excellence,

world-leading universities and colleges forging the strongest bonds with international partners and communities at home.

No Minister can do this on their own.

No Government can do this on their own.

This is a national mission.

A National Mission that our party will help drive forward:

Reducing class sizes,

A progressive higher education system,

Raising standards in our schools,

An Academy of Leadership that develops teaching talent,

And yes, the Welsh Pupil Premium – tearing down barriers to opportunity.

I maybe the only Liberal Democrat sitting at that cabinet table – but I’m one with a growing membership behind her – motivated by the challenges and opportunities ahead of us.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats…. a party that is growing and making a difference to the lives of the people of Wales.

Be proud conference.

Thank you.