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.

8 thoughts on “Leighton Andrews’ assault on systemic failure

  1. How low we set our standards if we heap praise on a Minister for not introducing the Govian lunacy currently being visited on children in England and for dropping some of the bureaucracy of his predecessors.

    In the longer term, Leighton Andrews will be seen as a man who put short-term electoral considerations well ahead of the needs of Wales. Most obviously, to defend your own seat against your own policy shows a lack of concern for the public good.

    However, the bigger long-term disaster in the making is the policy of paying our brightest young people to leave the country. Of course, today’s (largely middle class) parents will vote for a government that underwrites their offspring going up to Oxbridge to study. But 50 percent (the brightest half) of these youngsters will not come back. And at the same time, our Welsh universities struggle.

    If Leighton Andrews was the political and intellectual heavyweight claimed here, he would have reversed the university policy, and underwritten the costs of any UK student coming to study in Wales – in the long term, the competition for places would make Welsh Universities highly desirable, and would allow us to build the kind of relationships with leading edge industry that Cambridge has been famous for. But, sadly, Wales continues to value mediocrity.

  2. Philip Dixon’s concluding paragraph: “But above all I think that we are all more focused 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”.

    The above says it all and I truly despair for my kids and thousands of others in Welsh education as PD and many others fail to see the folly of Leighton’s legacy and if we still continue with the same approach the numeracy and literacy in Welsh education will never improve as Leighton used education to appease the Y Fro mindset and push Welsh language above all else!

    How can Welsh kids become good at anything especially the kids from English speaking homes when on average in Welsh primary education 50% of the available teaching time is devoted to teaching a tribal and irrelevant language and where teacher selection criteria is based on the ability to deliver ‘Welsh Language Curriculum’ and where competence has no place in that equation?

    For any sceptics reading this note consider the following extract on page 19 from Welsh Government’s document titled “Promoting linguistic progression between Key Stages 2 and 3” (Issued on behalf of Leighton Andrews as the Minister responsible for education in February 2012):
    “During the project, a number of fun activities were created for use with Years 5 and 6 learners to raise their awareness of the benefits of bilingual skills, including the social, educational and economic benefits.
    One example is to have two dolls that are similar in appearance, and present a story about the dolls to the learners. They are twins who have been brought up as Welsh speakers. Both had a Welsh-medium education at primary school. One went on to receive a Welsh-medium education at secondary school, but the other followed her friends and chose an English-medium education. One went to college in Wales while the other went to college in England. One of them retained her Welsh while the other lost the language after spending years working in London. By coincidence, years later both applied for the same job – a senior job with a good salary in an area of Wales with a high number of Welsh speakers.
    The learners are told that one twin has bilingual skills, and is therefore able to speak to everyone, in either English or Welsh. The other twin can only speak English. There is a discussion on the importance of giving customers a choice of language and on the rights of Welsh speakers. Learners are asked to choose which candidate should be given the job. In all cases, without exception, the learners chose the twin with bilingual skills. The result of the exercise is that the learners themselves realise the benefits of having bilingual skills”.

  3. I fear Phillips Dixon is missing the point, the Welsh education system is floundering. Lowering standards in the English language reinforces the underlying trend of failure. Labour and the vociferous Andrews have let the children down. There has never been more coercion than there is now, and children in their thousands rebel annually. This fact, evident on the JCQ results pages, is ignored annually.

    I believe wholeheartedly that Labour and the sympathies afforded them by the electorate, will systemically fail Wales. It is time that competition and failure were embraced as the two impostors that they are.

    Labour has taught us quite categorically that failure is nothing to be afraid of. Let us learn from Labours’s failures and turn those disasters, that some see as triumphs, in to real competition.

    Successful literacy strategies can be sold and bought, no more trials or initiatives. Pay for them at source and you will soon see what is political career building or educational sense. Local authority is an inefficient pursuit of political control paid for by the mass ignorance and mass oppression of the populous.

    Education can thrive without Labour, public services and “Welsheness”.

    It is time for change.

  4. Perhaps Phil Dixon could explain what is ‘lunatic’ about the results achieved at Mossbourne Academy or Hackney Academy where Labour’s excellent new candidate for Cardiff North Mari Williams was Vice Principal. How many schools in Wales can match what Michael Wilshaw managed at Mossbourne for a start?

  5. “Tribal and irrelevant language”

    You gave yourself away there Jacques, didn’t you?

    “50 per cent of time in Welsh primary schools”? In English medium ones that overstates the situation by a factor of about 5. But I don’t think facts are relevant to Mr Protic’s attitude.

  6. It seems to me, that the comments on this and other recent IWA articles on the departure of Leighton Andrews, have been filled by apologists for the status quo and those oblivious to the problems afflicting Welsh education or afraid to make the tough decisions that are needed. I do not pretend that Mr Andrews was perfect (nor I am sure, would he). However, at least he was prepared to take on the issues head on and begin to instigate a regime focussed on quality and performance improvement rather than insular mediocrity.

    The problems we are facing were aptly presented here…
    http://www.clickonwales.org/2012/08/tackling-a-reading-crisis-in-welsh-schools/ we should not lose sight of the cultural challenge this presents

    I hope Huw Lewis follows up Leighton’s efforts and I wish him well.


  7. There are two good reasons why I will not take up the cudgels with Philip Dixon on the departure of Leighton Andrews. Most importantly, Philip is the sanest union guy I know and is a friend of mine. Secondly, it is just impolite to quibble with people about funeral eulogies. Bereavement, especially after a sudden loss, does strange things to people’s emotions and memories.

    Suffice to say that one glaring factual inaccuracy does stand correcting. The minister did not set out his school within months of taking office. In actuality, he dithered for some 15 months before his lecture on ‘Teaching makes a difference’. The timespan was December 2009 to February 2011.

    As for evidence that his ministry made children in Wales better off, that has to be a resounding “Don’t think so”. Philip is a bit short on any reality check in this respect. But I forgive him for wanting it passionately to be true. We need more hope in education.

    Leighton was most loved by the unions (his mates) and the media (his former colleagues). I suggest those wanting less hagiography and panegyric should read Thursday’s Western Mail.

  8. Sorry, my second paragraph of above comment should have read in second sentence ‘set out his stall (not school)’.

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