'2003 was a remarkable year for Education in Wales with the chief inspector's report saying that all aspects of education had improved. We are delighted that more countries across the world look to Wales as we take forward the major programme of commitments set out in the Learning Country.
'I have no doubts that 2004 will prove to be an equally challenging year as there are many areas where we have commitments that are new and exciting for the people of Wales.
'For the coming year the major development areas will be early years education, providing new opportunities for our 14-19 year olds (including the exciting Welsh Baccalaureate pilot), the expansion of Welsh medium education and new opportunities in higher education.
'We must begin by getting the early years right to give every child a flying start. Already there are new early years centres across Wales with more to come. We have given a commitment that every three year old child in Wales will have a half time assembly funded nursery place from September 2004.
'A huge amount of effort has gone into developing the way forward for the new innovative and uniquely Welsh Foundation Stage for 3- to 7-year-olds. This new early years education phase will concentrate on learning through well-structured play, practical activity and investigation. We are working with the experts to develop a curriculum which offers a broad range of experiences and has a positive long term effect on children's development. Piloting throughout Wales will begin in September 2004.
'We will also be piloting this year our imaginative free breakfasts proposal designed to ens ure that all primary school children have the best possible start to the school day and helping their ability to learn. Alongside such new initiatives we will continue to evaluate how our children's learning is assessed and encouraged particularly as they move between primary school and secondary school.
'Developing new Learning Pathways for the 14- to 19-year-olds is also one of our key strategies as too many young people are not developing to the fullness of their potential. Work on this area has involved many people across the whole of education and training and business sectors. Developing and delivering policies in partnership has been very much the hallmark. We're taking partnership working right to the heart of policy making. Additional guidance for the 14-19 pathways will be available soon and pilot work will begin in September this year.
'In parallel with the 14-19 plans we will continue with the Welsh Baccalaureate pilots - in 18 schools and colleges with more to come on board in September 2004. I am particularly delighted that Wales is seen to be leading the way in developing a new broad qualification which the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service is recognising as equivalent to an A grade at A level, so it will enhance the chances of our young people gaining entrance to universities across the UK
'Wales has more learners in higher education than ever before and outperforms the rest of the UK in widening participation from non-traditional backgrounds. 91% of our students come from state schools to Welsh universities compared with 86% for UK. The Aim Higher Wales campaign has been spreading its message of the benefits of Higher Education to Year 9 students considering their future options with 111 schools visited so far. The unique Assembly Learning Grant will continue to give students in higher and further education from our poorest families financial assistance. To date almost 19,000 people have taken up the grant.
'We will continue to support the Higher Education s ector through mergers such as that between the University of Wales Cardiff and University Wales College of Medicine.
'A high profile area in the coming months will be the whole area of student support where we have been negotiating the transfer of responsibility for tuition fees and student support to the assembly, giving us the opportunity to design a system for the future to suit the needs of Wales. An independent group is being established to advise the assembly government on how best to use its powers over student support from 2007/08.
'And running like a golden thread throughout all these plans is the commitment to expanding opportunities for Welsh medium education. The first strategic action plan for the language, Iaith Pawb, was published just a year ago. We worked hard to put our plan together and we will work hard in taking it forward. There have already been many very positive developments in recent months in support of the Welsh language. This year's budget provides extra money for the training needs related to additional early years Welsh-medium and bilingual provision; extra curriculum resources and a new intensive Welsh language learning scheme for pilot English medium primaries. There is also funding available for the expansion of Welsh medium education in the higher education sector in our reconfiguration fund.
'The assembly government is committed to a bilingual Wales and will continue to provide the environment and resources needed to realise this all important agenda.
'My priority remains to firmly establish Wales as a Learning Country. It is about unlocking talent, widening access and encouraging people into learning who have never considered it before.
'I will continue to underline the importance of putting learners first, broadening and enriching the experience of learning, while keeping standards high, equipping teachers to teach, and opening up new access routes to learning. We must make good use of the money available, we must ensure that our policies ar e evidence based, that they will secure social inclusion, that they will drive forward equality of opportunity and help progression towards bilingualism.
'This is a hugely challenging education agenda because it means doing things differently, building on our success but being prepared to tackle failure. If we work in partnership for a common goal - to see the vision realised of Wales as a learning country, then Wales will truly be able to take its place on the world stage.'