Noswaith, my Lord, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you, Geraint, for your introduction and inviting me to speak at your North Wales Branch Dinner.
Last week, the Western Mail carried the headline: ‘Minister warns witchcraft thriving in parts of Wales’.
I know you say in your marketing material for this dinner that I am no stranger to controversy, but can I make it clear that on this occasion I was not the Minister involved!
In fact it was a Congregationalist Minister, not a Government Minister.
I have come to sing for my supper tonight. I just hope I don’t give too many people indigestion.
In the 25 years since the establishment of the Institute of Welsh Affairs in 1987, we have seen changes in the Welsh political landscape, but the Institute has remained a constant and prominent voice in Welsh policy-making.
The IWA has raised the level of public debate on issues affecting Wales, by promoting wider interest and participation in the development and implementation of Government policy before and since the existence of a government in Cardiff Bay.
Devolution did not begin with the creation of the National Assembly. In education there has long been an established regime of administrative devolution. But prior to the creation of the National Assembly, Welsh policy-making often looked like a sub-set of policy designed for England.
Now, I am not in favour of developing policy for Wales, just for the sake of it. I am in favour of looking at the evidence and deciding on the basis of the evidence what our policy should be – and evidence can of course include cultural traditions – If you read the London newspapers, or watch or listen to UK network news, then you would get the impression in so many areas of public policy that England is normative – in other words, that the default position has to be what the Government in London has laid down for policy in England.
Tonight, let us take the view not from London but from Llandudno.
In so many areas of education, it is English policy which is out of kilter with the rest of the UK. You could call it an Eton mess.
As I told Michael Gove when we met in the summer of 2010, one of the advantages of devolution was that it allowed England to be a laboratory for experiments.
I want to say a few words about the development of policy on education and higher education in the context of contemporary debates on the future of the United Kingdom.
I think after more than a decade of devolution, we should have more confidence about our ability to make decisions and shape policies here in Wales. After all, the judgement handed down by the Supreme Court on the Bye-laws bill 2 weeks ago shows that the Government in Whitehall does not always know best. Yet at the time the Attorney- General referred the Bill to the Supreme Court, so many commentators in the media told us that this to quote BBC Wales was ‘an embarrassment for the Welsh Government’. In the end of course, we won 5-0. On all counts.
That alone suggests to me that it is time to say to our own media here in Wales – stop looking over your shoulder. Stop tugging your forelock. It’s time to abandon the Cymric cringe.
I am delighted to be able to tell you that as far as my own department is concerned, we have implemented or are in the process of implementing most of our manifesto commitments. Some of them are not liked in London.
Indeed, some of the London newspapers don’t like devolution at all and we live in a Wales of course where the bulk of people get their news from newspapers written in London. It is perhaps not surprising that when these papers engage with issues of education policy in Wales it is on the occasions that they think of us as exotic or backward.
So when we took a decision on HE tuition fees that was different from the UK coalition government, supporting our students so that they don’t have to pay the higher fees themselves, the Telegraph and Mail in particular didn’t like it, both branding it educational apartheid. Even the BBC were a bit shocked. An old friend contacted me on Facebook to say
“Leighton – wish you’d seen the response in the newsroom…think the penny dropped at last about the reality of devolved powers. Da iawn.”
Well, in October, when English students were having to take out loans to cover the full cost of £9000 fees, tuition fee grants were covering the bulk of the fees for students from Wales. No Welsh student, wherever they study, will face the cost of higher fees.
Last week, we published a review of qualifications in Wales undertaken by a review board chaired by Huw Evans OBE, former Chief Executive of Coleg Llandrillo. The review board had the objective of simplifying our qualifications system. It took great care to ascertain views from higher education and from employers. We had a university vice- chancellor and employer representatives on the review board.
I urge everyone to read the conclusions of that review. They are well-considered; incremental, rather than revolutionary; and grounded in practical experience. They build on what we have already, taking on the lessons of our new Literacy and Numeracy Framework, with the new reading and numeracy tests for years 2-9, and suggest the establishment of new GCSEs in literacy and numeracy, and the ability to earn the Welsh Baccalaureate through either general or vocational qualifications.
Like us, England is reviewing its qualifications system, but in a much more dirigiste fashion. In their case, they appear to have announced the main pillar of their new qualifications system – the English Baccalaureate, before embarking on their consultation, whereas we prefer to consult first and consider the evidence. Michael Gove announced a new approach to A Levels in the pages of the Daily Telegraph, and a new approach to GCSEs on the Andrew Marr show. His announcements were made without reference to either the Northern Ireland Education Minister or myself. Yet these are 3- country qualifications. We cannot continue like this. Northern Ireland has already withdrawn its GCSE qualifications from being taught in England, because they are unhappy with the emerging policy divergence which says that GCSEs are not fit for purpose and are ‘dumbed down’. Wales and Northern Ireland agree with each other and disagree with the Secretary of State in England.
We know that portability of qualifications is important, and portability has been fully considered by our review group.
We have had the Welsh Baccalaureate Qualification in Wales for a number of years with great success. We know that this qualification is portable and is of a standard that is well-respected, and the CBI speaks highly of it as preparation for work.
We have already accepted some of the Review of Qualifications Board’s recommendations such as the need to implement grading in the Advanced level Welsh Baccalaureate. Courses commencing from September 2013 will be graded. We believe this will further enhance recognition of the Welsh Baccalaureate for entry to Higher Education.
Decisions about whether grading should be implemented at other levels will be announced by the end of January 2013 and we will be responding to all the recommendations in the report at this time.
Issues around the quality of qualifications are high in the media and the Review of Qualifications was challenged by the announcements in England, particularly in relation to the direction of travel in relation to the future of GCSEs in England.
However I will not be pushed by the media into taking a path that I don’t think is right for Wales.
For policy and political analysts the summer was a frenzy of questions about policy divergence. The strength of our system was demonstrated by the fact that when we identified an injustice in relation to English Language GCSEs, we were able to act swiftly to resolve this. In England, everyone including the Secretary of State has conceded there has been injustice for some English students. But there has been no action by Government or the regulator in England to right that injustice, and a court case commences in England next Tuesday.
We will keep an eye on what is happening across the border, but we will not be deflected from considering what is best for Wales, Welsh students and the Welsh economy.
In Wales, we are now used to alternative centres of power in the UK. I am not sure that UK Ministers are. There are now 3 kinds of UK Ministers, it seems to me.
Those, like the Foreign Secretary, or the Defence Secretary, who operate on a genuinely UK-wide basis.
Those, like the Secretary of State for Education, who are largely Ministers for England.
Those, like the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who work principally on a UK or GB basis, but have to deliver some of their functions through the devolved administrations, and are surprised sometimes to find that they can’t simply demand that we follow their diktat.
We understand devolution – they now need to.
Local authorities have been working to set up regional consortia with a deadline that they would be fully operational by September 2012. The consortia have started to deliver school improvement services on a regional basis. In some areas good progress has been made but overall.
Devolution has given us stronger accountability in Wales. We now need to ask whether all of the pre-devolution structures that we inherited remain fit for purpose.
Progress is, to put it mildly, patchy. Local authorities and consortia gave me an assurance that they will have teams of system leaders based upon the very best school improvement officers and excellent head teachers. Certainly some very able new system leaders have been appointed. But not all are in place.
Since the introduction of Estyn’s Common Inspection Framework in September 2010, local authority inspection reports have been published by Estyn. Newport, Conwy, Denbigh, Carmarthen and Neath Port Talbot all good.
Anglesey – in special measures, with an intervention board appointed. Blaenau Gwent – in special measures, run by commissioners. Pembrokeshire – in significant imrpovement, under the direction of a Ministerial Board. Torfaen – significant improvement Powys – significant improvement.
We then have Wrexham, Cardiff, Flint, RCT and Caerphilly as adequate – or as I have said before, barely good enough – and in Estyn monitoring.
So we have no excellent local authorities but 5 good ones. 5 are in a formal Estyn category and 5 are being monitored by Estyn.
In North Wales, Conwy and Denbighshire good, Anglesey diabolical and in special measures, Flintshire and Wrexham adequate. If you want to retain any level of local democratic engagement you need to show us you can make it work.
The signs are not encouraging.
The North Wales Consortium began earlier than anyone else, not far off 3 years ago, but is now well behind rest of Wales. So my message to you is – sort yourselves out or I will do it for you.
Both I and the Minister for Local Government and Communities have repeatedly called upon local authorities to make joint appointments when vacancies arise. In respect of posts for Directors of Education and Chief Education Officers, this has fallen on deaf ears.
I have also said that the fragmentation of education authorities in the mid-1990s was one of the contributing factors for the downturn in educational performance a decade later, as effective challenge and support was lost in many parts of the system and time, energy and resource was dissipated. I have given local authorities time and money to get their house in order but the evidence is overwhelming that this is not the case.
I have said repeatedly I would not have invented 22 local education authorities for a nation of 3 million people. No-one sensible would. John Redwood did.
The truth is that the Tory-imposed structure of 22 local education authorities is failing our children and it is not fit for purpose.
With the backing of the First Minister and the Minister for Local Government and Communities, I have instructed my officials to scope out a more wide-ranging review on the delivery of education services. This will look at what should be undertaken at a school, local authority, regional and national level.
I am, let me say, in favour of local democracy and local accountability. But we have had plenty of local democracy and too little local accountability. When failure happens, heads should roll. Spending on education on average amounts to around 37% of local authority budgets. Local authority leaders need to ensure that it gets the relevant focus and political attention that requires. Local Government Cabinet Members for Education need to be absolutely focussed on school performance. Directors of Education need to be held to account. Local authority services like ICT need to deliver for our schools. Heads need expert human resources support that understands the particular needs of schools. Local authority appointed school governors need to do the job they were appointed to do. They are part of our accountability system. We will not tolerate failure. We will not tolerate mediocrity. Nor will we tolerate the status quo imposed by the Conservatives in the 90s. Let those who have constructive alternatives, bring them forward. But maybe it’s time to liberate education from this structure that’s holding us back.
We stood on a platform of creating jobs and boosting the economy and this included protecting education budgets.
For 2011-12 to 2014-15 budgets for schools, both within the Education Department and through the Revenue Support Grant have been protected by 1% above the rate of change in the Welsh budget. This means that over the same period, school funding within the Education and Skills budget will increase by £18m.
This protection also means education funding within the Revenue Support Grant will be over £80m higher in 2014-15 than in 2010-11.
We are working with local authorities to ensure that 85% of schools funding is delegated to schools by 30 September 2014.
The FE sector is also driving efficiencies and has responded well to the Transformation agenda. This has stimulated and supported a number of mergers across Wales. Mergers proposed to complete within the coming year put us clearly on target to achieve the reduction from 20 in 2009 to 8-12 by 2014. April of this year saw the successful merger of Coleg Menai with Coleg Llandrillo creating one of the largest Colleges in the UK; Grwp Llandrillo-Menai.
As you will have seen in the media recently we also have the coming together of Yale College, Wrexham and Deeside College which will operate as Coleg Cambria from August 2013. This will also become one of the largest colleges in the UK providing excellent opportunities for learners and the wider community in North East Wales.
Tomorrow I will be outlining some of the challenges facing our higher education system and how we plan to take forward a new approach, in cooperation with the higher education sector as a whole.
We have much to be proud of in Wales. We are rightly proud of Glyndwr’s links with the business community in North East Wales, and I had the pleasure of visiting OpTIC Glyndwr today to see the telescope project in partnership with European Southern Observatory.
Bangor University is contributing to a research project looking at Buildings as power stations, which could put Wales at the forefront of global renewable energy technology. And of course, you will all be aware of the recent launch of the first Welsh dictionary app on the summit of Snowdon.
Our universities play their part in boosting our economy and this type of world class research will help them do this.
In these hard economic times our priority is to create jobs and enable growth. Our public services including education will be play a big part delivering this. They need to be modern and sustainable.
We know that young people are being edged out of the labour market by the overall supply of jobs as well as by who else is competing for them. Jobs Growth Wales has been designed to support young people to secure that important first step on the jobs ladder by giving them a paid, six month opportunity of work which we hope will lead to sustained employment.
You may have heard that we have achieved our first major milestone and created over 4,000 job opportunities for young people across Wales. And we’re not just creating jobs in the south of Wales, along the M4 corridor. A good spread of vacancies are in the north of Wales with nearly 200 here in Conwy. And there are almost 2,500 young people in Jobs Growth Wales jobs. We are working hard to fill the remaining vacancies by the end of March.
We are taking action to deliver the things that make a difference for Wales now and in the future. If this is our priority then throughout the last 25 year the Institute for Welsh Affairs can claim it as their priority too. You have closely followed, analysed and initiated the public debate on current issues facing Wales. You have also provided the challenge and rigour to policy development.
Tonight, let’s celebrate where we have success. Let’s learn from each other so that we build on that success and plan for the next 25 years.
Wales may be a small country but we have big ambitions – we will, together, champion Wales with pride as a great place to live, learn and work.