To say former leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats Kirsty Williams bounced back following a dismal result in last May’s Assembly Election would be an understatement. Left as the sole Lib Dem AM in Wales, she brought into the very heart of Carwyn Jones’ Welsh Government as education secretary. Ian Craig met her at her office in Cardiff Bay to talk about her career and how she plans to improve education across Wales.

LAST May’s Welsh Assembly election was not kind to the Liberal Democrats.

The party lost all but one of its seats, with leader and sole remaining AM Kirsty Williams stepping down from the leadership.

But Ms Williams, one of only a handful of AMs elected in the first-ever Assembly Election in 1999 to still have a seat in the Senedd, was thrown an unexpected bone when she was invited to join Carwyn Jones’ cabinet as educations secretary.

As the only non-Labour cabinet member, the Brecon and Radnorshire AM now wields a not-inconsiderable responsibility over the whole of Wales’ education system.

Growing up in Llanelli, Ms Williams cited watching family members working in the steel industry lose their jobs and seeing a lecture by Social Democratic Party (SDP) MP Roy Jenkins, later a Lib Dem peer, as one of the biggest influences on her political development.

“I just remember listening to the lecture and thinking ‘I can’t say it in the same words he can but that’s the kind of community and society I want to live in’,” she said.

“That made me aware of the existence of what was then the Liberal Party and the SDP alliance and that’s how I got involved.”

Joining the Liberal Party at 15, Ms Williams said, she initially had no intention of politics becoming a full-time career.

“At that point I was going to be Kate Adie, I was going to be an international war correspondent and I had no intentions of politics being a career, it was just something I was involved with and I did outside of school,” she said.

“I was very fortunate that, although my parents weren’t actively political in a party sense or an activism sense, I grew up in a household where what was going on in the world was always discussed.

“On Sunday the family would go to my grandma’s house in Swansea for Sunday lunch, we’d sit down and there’d be a wide variety of political opinions around the table and my grandma would say ‘Oh please not politics today ‘.

“There would be arguments and I learned very quickly to be part of that, you had to have an opinion, so I was very lucky to grow up in that sort of household.

“I think my parents were a bit bemused by it all, but in 1997 the Welsh Liberal Democrat conference prior to the elections was held in Swansea and they came along to that to the rally on the Friday night where I was speaking.

“It was the first time they had ever come to that and they said ‘oh gosh, you’re quite good’. After that they were very supportive of me deciding to stand for the Assembly.”

While the Lib Dems have always been the smallest party in the Senedd, never achieving more than six seats, Ms Williams said she believed the party had always punched above its weight.

But last May’s result was particularly poor for the party.

Ms Williams said she believed the result was at least partially the result of a backlash following the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in Westminster.

“We were fortunate in the first Assembly Elections since that (in 2011) we were able to withstand that and return the group of five,” she said.

“It’s a huge regret to me we weren’t able to do that last year, but we found ourselves in a situation where the party was at a very low ebb in the polls and in a different political situation with more political parties being in a state to be able to get into the Assembly.

“We were under no illusions about the tough battle we were in, but we were determined to give it our best shot we could knowing we could end up in that situation.

“But it was a devastating night for the party.”

She added: “What is important now is the party going forward under the leadership of (Ceredigion MP) Mark Williams takes advantage of the rise in support for the Lib Dems.

“So we dust ourselves down pick ourselves up and now more than ever, as (national Liberal Democrat leader) Tim Farron says, in a post-Brexit and Trump world, liberal voices and liberal values are needed more than they’ve ever been needed.”

Ms Williams said when first minister Carwyn Jones initially approached her with a view towards bringing her into the cabinet it was not with a specific focus on the education portfolio.

She added it was a level of trust and understanding between her and the first minister which ultimately led her to accept the role.

“We have worked together before and we had worked together in the previous administration on budget deals,” she said.

“I think we’ve established a level of trust and a level of understanding between the pair of us and I think all those things led to the situation where he could offer this and I could take up the offer.

“Importantly, some of that is written down so there is a written agreement around those ideas.

“But also sitting around the cabinet table gives me the opportunity to bring a different perspective to some of those discussions.”

She added she did not believe she had compromised her political goals in taking the role.

“From a politician’s point of view it’s certainly an adjustment when you’ve been used to operating in a certain way as an opposition member for a long time,” she said. “Certainly there are changes to your daily routine in that you don’t get to ask questions any more, you have to answer questions.

“But so far I have been able to speak freely in cabinet and in my regular meetings with the first minister.”

With a new Welsh-specific curriculum currently being developed and other reforms to funding, qualifications and teacher training in the pipeline, the education portfolio is no small challenge.

Ms Williams said: “We are radically changing all aspects of our education system, not just tinkering with little bits of it and we are doing that because of the interconnectivity of the system.

“Its nigh-on impossible just to do a little bit, we won’t get the impact we need if we just do a little bit.

“So managing that and delivering on that is a challenge.”

But she added she was aware she alone could not make the changed needed to achieve her goals.

“It has to be a partnership with all the people that have a stake in the education system,” she said.

“I am confident that by working together we can achieve my ultimate goal, which is to have a first-class education system for Wales and one which people around the world will want to come and look at, what were the changes we undertook and what were the reforms we put through that led to that system.

“But I can’t do it on my own. I can only do it in partnership with parents, learners and educators.

“I want to have an education system that the profession are proud of and parents and learners have confidence in.

“That’s what I want to achieve.

“If I can do that, I’ll be a happy lady.”