Leighton Andrews’ assault on systemic failure

Philip Dixon judges that the children of Wales are better off because of the work of the outgoing Education Minister

Like the weather in March Leighton Andrews came in like a lion and went out like a lamb. He had made no secret of his ambition to be Minister for Education, but his resignation from the post he loved took everyone by surprise. It’s far too early to discern his legacy. However, I would wager that he will stand out as the most effective Education Minister in the first two decades of devolution and possibly the most effective Cabinet member in that time too.

From the start it was clear that Leighton was going to be different to his predecessors. Gone were the mumsy muddle of Jane Hutt and the patrician hauteur of Jane Davidson. Instead we were presented with a man who knew his own mind. He had already done a lot of background research and had his own views about the state of Welsh education. And they weren’t very complimentary.

He simply didn’t buy the ‘Wales is best’ line, nor the Civil Service’s Frank Spencer mantra of “everyday in every way it’s getting better and better”. He had done some of the statistical analysis and he knew that we were lagging behind. One of his first significant acts was to summon the arch-heretic Professor David Reynolds who had been a voice crying in the wilderness for some time that all was far from well in the educational world of Wales.

Within months of taking office he set out his stall in a lecture Teaching Makes a Difference that I was privileged to Chair at the National Museum. It was a tour de force. The great and the good of Welsh education were gathered and our collective responsibility exposed. PISA showed that we were underperforming and by extension failing to give our children the requisite skills for life.

We were lagging behind comparative regions in England in terms of GCSEs. Too many of our youngsters were becoming NEET (‘Not in employment, education or training’). There was far too much inexplicable variation between schools and local authorities. We had developed an overly cosy consensus in which we kidded ourselves that we were a good system. The structure of our education service delivery was far from optimal. And so it went on. The analysis was incontrovertible. Only the head-bangers denied it. The atmosphere was akin to the Head Teacher telling the sixth form that he was disappointed in their conduct. We left rather sheepishly, realising that we had all played a part in what was labelled ‘systemic failure’.

From the lecture emerged twenty points that were to focus the rest of Leighton’s time as Minister. There was to be a relentless focus on standards, above all on literacy, numeracy, and narrowing the gap. Over the next two years a raft of policies was launched to implement that change. A National Literacy and Numeracy Framework with a national support programme to back it up were introduced. Allied to these was the introduction of national literacy and numeracy tests for most children.

A wide-ranging review of Qualifications was undertaken which proposed the retention and strengthening of GCSEs, and the establishment of Qualifications Wales. The School Support Unit was set up within the Department for Education to collate and interrogate data. And most controversially of all, a banding system was introduced to categorise secondary schools. One cynic commented that the Ministerial programme boiled down to the aphorism: “Ditch the Davidson legacy”. Whatever the truth of that, in the words of Professor David Egan, Leighton really did  “made us wake up and smell the coffee”.

It would be easy to typify the departed minster as a bull in the education china shop. He could be acerbic and forceful on occasions and he made a number of enemies. I have only to see a packet of CocoPops to remind me of his temper. But he was also prepared to listen when presented with clear evidence that plans were going awry. Primary banding was postponed when it became clear that the extant data was too flaky to be relied on. And the Child Development Action Plan, an attempt to benchmark children’s progress in the early years, was pulled when it became manifest that it was a bureaucratic nightmare.

He also lost some key battles. Cardiff Metropolitan University (the old UWIC) saw off an attempt to forcibly merge it with Glamorgan and Newport. Attempts to reform the Civil Service, who were categorically included as part of the ‘systemic failure’, were patchy. The inherited Director General didn’t last long and new blood was brought in.

However, dysfunction, lack of calibre and expertise are not easily solved. Attempts to make local authorities work more collaboratively were similarly very patchy. Ironically the blue print for radical change, the Hill Report, was published just a week before the Minister’s unscheduled departure.

Given that the ink is barely dry on his first education Act and that some of the changes mentioned above have hardly bedded in it’s far too early to judge his legacy. But we can perhaps answer this key question:  Are the children of Wales better off because of him? The answer has to be a resounding “Yes”.

Welsh university students are not saddled with the crippling debts of their English colleagues. The lunatic experiments of Academies and Free Schools have not been visited on pupils. Those sitting GCSEs and A levels have not had those qualifications trashed as they have been by Mr. Gove. Hundreds of last year’s students were not saddled with grades in English GCSE that belied their ability.

But above all I think that we are all more focussed than ever before on what is after all the key role of a school – teaching and learning. Leighton’s concentration on literacy, numeracy, and narrowing the gap will remain at the heart of Welsh education for quite some time.

Philip Dixon is Director of ATL Cymru, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

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