Welsh Government loses incisive Education Minister

Geraint Talfan Davies assesses the significance of the loss of Leighton Andrews from the Welsh Cabinet

When such an experienced political hand as Peter Hain describes a ministerial resignation as “catastrophic for Welsh Labour” – his own party – you know that something pretty important has happened. There can have been no potential Cabinet resignation that the First Minister, Carwyn Jones, would have regretted more than that of Leighton Andrews. The question is, did he have any choice but to seek and accept that resignation?

Leighton Andrews’ passion for his constituency, estimable in every other regard, could not be allowed to override a conflict with his quasi-judicial functions as Education Minister, requiring him to adjudicate on school closures. The case for resignation rests, therefore, on a punctilious regard for the ministerial code that would undoubtedly play to the First Minister’s lawyerly instincts. Regard for the ministerial code is not to be lightly dismissed.

Yet the former First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, seemed to suggest yesterday that there should have been a way through this, as happened when Rhodri Morgan himself transferred some of his own responsibilities to another Minister to allow him to campaign on a school issue in his own constituency. Rhodri Morgan resorted to the refereeing analogy saying that Mr Andrews had already been given a yellow card over his campaigning on another constituency interest, proposed changes to the Royal Glamorgan hospital. But if we pursue the football analogy it is doubtful whether, in the circumstances, an appeal would have seen him get more than a one match ban, if that.

The regret in Carwyn Jones’s response to the resignation letter, was undoubtedly real rather than formulaic, which makes it all the more mystifying that the search for a solution was not pursued for another day or two. In the event the Cabinet has lost its most incisive Minister and most acute strategic mind, not to mention the organiser of Mr Jones’s campaign for the leadership of Labour in Wales. He has been a Minister with a reputation for guts, independence, effectiveness and, above all, a sense of urgency not evident in every corner of Welsh Government.

In the world of Welsh education there will, of course, be a degree of schadenfreude. Those who have suffered from Mr Andrews’ sometimes withering criticisms, may breathe a sigh of relief, misjudged though that will be. Two years ago the IWA arranged for Mr Andrews to deliver a lecture at Cardiff University on school standards. The large lecture theatre was packed to capacity. As I walked in, a leading figure in local government alongside me gaped as he saw the assembled throng and whispered: “It’s just amazing how many people will turn out for a bollocking.”

Mr Andrews’s reputation went before him, and there were many in the sector who urged him to take a softer, scenic route towards change. But often these were the very same people who had failed to respond to the entreaties of previous Ministers, who had failed to deliver change themselves, failed to reform institutions, processes and performance with the urgency that Wales’s situation demanded and still demands. Ministerial impatience has rarely been more thoroughly justified.

He has brought about a substantial degree of institutional change in higher education, and has put in place a comprehensive set of measures to improve school performance. Yet the nature of educational reform is such that it is almost impossible to deliver step changes in performance in the short term. But if that improvement does materialise it will have been the result not of isolated initiatives but of a formidable programme of systemic reform that has demonstrated a healthy dislike of fudges.

The irony is that his resignation has come at the very point when his emphasis was beginning to change from institutional reform to a more outward looking agenda and, most likely, a different tone. The chastening fact is that Carwyn Jones will be hard-pressed to find as capable a Minister to make these reforms stick, in an area of policy that is far and away more important for Wales’s future than any other. The new Minister will have the formidable task of continuing to build Wales’s educational capacities just as money is getting ever more scarce.

Leighton Andrews’ departure from the Cabinet also points up the scarcity of executive expertise in the National Assembly – in all parties. The range of his experience is wider than almost anyone among the 60 members: a one time director of a UK campaign on homelessness, a Board member for an all-Wales housing body, the creator of his own business – a political consultancy at Westminster, and later in Cardiff – and a senior strategic role for the BBC in both London and Brussels.

It was this range of experience – in Cardiff, London and Brussels – that equipped him not only to be an effective Minister but also to be such an astute campaigner on so many fronts: the Yes campaign in the 1997 and 2011 referendums, the campaign against Burberry’s precipitate withdrawal from the Rhondda, and the election of Carwyn Jones as leader of Welsh Labour. It is a cruel irony that this campaigning bent has been the cause of his resignation.

If there is a silver lining to this resignation, it is that Mr Andrews is the kind of person who will undoubtedly put a period on the backbenches – even a short one – to very productive use. He has an eye for the big picture as well as systemic weaknesses, something that he could usefully apply objectively to Welsh government as a whole.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

12 thoughts on “Welsh Government loses incisive Education Minister

  1. There will be no tears in my eyes with Leighton’s departure, crocodile or otherwise. Equally not surprised with Rhodri Morgan’s stance as Leighton faithfully carried out his mission to socially engineer Welsh ‘nation’ into a bilingual society with relentless pursuance and zest and in the process all he has achieved was to inflict an immeasurable harm to young people of Wales.

    I find the notion of ‘Being born to fail’ a very apt definition for most Welsh children where imposition of a largely irrelevant language and its culture on unwilling and reluctant children is nothing other than a criminal act and let’s hope any new Education Minister for Wales will free this nation of the straight jacket and failed political dogma and give education back to parents and give them freedom to chose Welsh or English medium education for their children.

  2. This is probably the most significant political development of the year in Wales and the repercussions will no doubt play out over the coming months.

    However, there is one point that I wish to make with regards the Ministerial Code. Politics is the art of compromise, as the cliche goes, but there are certain issues for which a line has to be drawn and action taken when crossed.

    Geraint Talfan-Davies states that:

    “Yet the former First Minister, Rhodri Morgan, seemed to suggest yesterday that there should have been a way through this, as happened when Rhodri Morgan transferred some of his own responsibilities to another Minister to allow him to campaign on a school issue in his own constituency.”

    I am not enough of a politician to know what options were available at the time, but the course of action taken by Rhodri, although correct, does not exactly inspire confidence in the idea of Government integrity.

    His position can be characterised as being:

    I am First Minister.
    I wish to campaign for a school that conflicts with my duties as First Minister.
    I shall therefore stop being First Minister in certain aspects of my job.
    This will enable me to avoid the political consequences in my constituency of my own political decisions.
    When I have solved my local political difficulty, I shall then return to being the First Minister in full.

    That position seems to have been echoed in Leighton Andrew’s position with the exception that he did not abdicate his ministerial responsibilities, as did Rhodri Morgan.

    It seems to me that the lesson is that Ministers will often find themselves having to make decisions that have consequences for them personally in their own constituencies. I am open to suggestions but it seems to me that this is the price you pay for having the power of a Minister. A similar situation arose in England where Cheryl Gillan opposed, and still opposes, the building of HS2. She did not step down from office, as she should have done, but was not chosen for office in the subsequent reshuffle.

    Closer to home, Nye Bevan resigned from the Atlee Government in 1951 over the introduction of prescription charges for dental care and spectacles.

    The essential point that needs to be made here, and I have an uneasy feeling that it’s a point that will need to be made many times over before it sinks in, is that the constitution of a country, whether written or unwritten, has priority over the personal political difficulties of individual politicans.

    Leighton Andrews has breached the constitutional principles on which our Government is based and has done the honourable thing. He will no doubt learn his lesson and later return to Government where, with his talent and ability, he belongs. I, for one, applaud what he tried to achieve in reforming the education system, and hope that the momentum behind these reforms will not be lost with his departure.

    With this resignation, we will hopefully see an end to Rhodri Morgan’s “pragmatism” as a school of thought among Ministers. Although this is clearly a set back for Carwyn Jones’s Government, I would like to think that its reputation for integrity, as well as that of the Assembly, has been enhanced by these developments.

  3. Geraint I suggest that you read the balanced report that went to RCT’s cabinet on April 21st. For years politicians who are not the councillors who have to take the decisions have played to the gallery and opposed school closures for mainly personal political reasons . Anyone who claims to be interested in the future of the Rhondda and particularly education in the Rhondda would be fully behind the advice of the officers to consult on whether the school concerned should close. In 2012 one of the recommendations of the Estyn report on RCT was to ‘ reduce surplus school places’. Pentre school has a surplus place rate of 63.9% which is the highest in the Rhondda. What should have happened in this case is that both the parents and the local Plaid councillors should have been told by the local AM or MP whatever their political persuasion that the decision of Labour controlled RCT’s cabinet to consult on school closure was the correct one on educational grounds alone. In financial terms it might save £171,000 but the authority intends to spend £1.5 million on improving Treorchy primary school which is only 0.9 miles away.

  4. I agree this is seismic stuff politically. It is also mysterious. No one in their right mind resigns over these minor matters about which Rhodri Morgan is rightly incredulous. The only explanation can be that Mr Andrews is getting out on his terms before more bad news comes out on international school standards through more PISA misery in December (his fourth anniversary it would be). If he is jumping off his self-constructed platform before likely humiliation, he is being mindful of his reputation and future prospects. This adds up to a leadership challenge. He has a big following inside the party, politics and the nation.

    As for Mr Andrews and his ministerial record, I cannot reconcile the gloss Geraint Talfan Davies is lacquering over it with what I have seen these past three and a half years. I speak solely about schools. Mr Andrews worked tirelessly but in four years failed to achieve tangible systemic improvement for Welsh schools. He boasted he would reform our system but Fabians cannot do reform. He was too fond of superficial planning and neo-Blarite dogmatic pragmatism, around the mechanics of school improvement, with repeated lists of action plans and dopey targets. He ordered more reports than GCHQ, had more reviews than the Windmill and set up more pilots than British Airways. His celebrated 20 point plan of February 2011 is an incoherent strategy that missed the importantly systemic woods for the Fabianist trees. He blamed a lot (usually local government) and bullied a fair bit. He could do bollockings but was ignorant of the grim reality of effective educational change planning, even surrounded by copious advisers and his Standards Unit. He did little to address the ailing basic conditions of teaching in Wales. He centralised everything, even worse than Gove, and did nought to set schools free from more government dependency and overload. His examinations reform could be a nationalist road to second-classness. He failed to improve the pay and conditions of Welsh teachers one iota. He was wrong and wasteful about Welsh as a mandated second language. He came to literacy and numeracy far too late, 12 years after England and even then lacked strong national ambition. His effort on investing on school buildings amounts to a dereliction of ministerial duty. He preferred to keep open unpopular, small crumbling schools rather than develop innovative financial strategies to revitalise our shockingly bad school buildings. And, as Robert Hill recently reported, he was pretty clueless about building up effective school leadership.

    He said famously “performance is our driver”. His resignation histrionics show that actually politics is his driver.

    Mr Andrews must bear a lot of responsibility for Wales being known as The Slow Learning Country. That said, he may be the best of our three education ministers under devolution; that means the previous two were even greater failures, judged by how well our schools system is performing. Will he be missed? of course, in the land of the pulled punch big hitters are at a premium. But this praise for Andrews says more about the parlous state of Welsh politics than the measure of the man himself.

  5. He was about the best Minister in the Welsh government but he had to go. Emyr Lewis’ remarks in Clickon yeasterday about Westminster and others looking down on the Welsh Assembly is perfectly reflected by the Assembly and the government’s own attitude to Welsh local government. Councils are regarded as recalcitrant agents of the centre rather than as bodies with their own democratic mandate. Devolution stops in Cardiff. It is poetic justice that a Welsh Minister is brought down by the contempt he showed for a local authority that was using its discretion in implementing his own policy.

  6. It’s just been announced that Huw Lewis has been appointed as the new Education Secretary. At first glance, not an inspiring choice especially given his previous atagonism towards the Welsh language. Does this bode badly for Welsh language education, in spite of its good reputation?

  7. The latest update is that the First Minister will take responsibility for the language, though that presumably does not include the Welsh language education sector.

  8. The Labour party in Wales have presided over the stagnation of Welsh development for 16 years. Education is a prime example where natural competition has not been allowed to flourish. The new Minister, Huw Lewis, once again harps on about the gap in achievement between low income families and higher income families. Once again we will see money poured at a problem as some sort of cathartic exercise in self importance to address this measurable imbalance whilst no discernible change will take place.

    Leighton Andrews lowered standards whilst in power, whilst expelling voluminous amounts of hot air about raising them. Now, finally (until next time), he has been caught out. The hypocrisy has caught up with him. One side effect of his Kamikaze actions is to release the Welsh language Minister’s portfolio and divorce this responsibility from Education. “Welshness” has gone too far. I have made the point previously, if foundations are built on sand any further topics built on unsound footings will falter and fail.

    It is high time competition was brought in to the education sector at both school and local authority levels. It is also time to stop throwing money at ‘problems’ and address the root cause of low expectations – the welfare state.

    If you keep doing the same thing over and over again but expect different results – you must be mad. Replacing LA with another clone hewn from the same rock will prevent change.

    I won’t be holding my breath for significant improvements.

  9. It’s a shame that so few people have remarked on the link between Leighton Andrew’s justified efforts to reduce surplus places in schools and the drive to actually get funding to be used effectively on pupil’s education. In 2012 Estyn produced a study which looked at the economic effect of surplus places in Welsh schools
    “How do surplus places affect the resources available for expenditure on improving outcomes for pupils?”

    The extract below is an attempt to quantify the burden of empty school places:-
    “The most informed analyses show that, in the primary sector in Wales in 2011-2012,
    the average cost of a surplus place is £260 whilst, in addition, the average saving
    that results from closing a school is £63,500. The equivalent figures for the
    secondary sector are £510 per surplus place and £113,000 per school. Therefore,
    closing a primary school will yield potential savings of £63,500 plus £260 for each
    surplus place removed. Closing a secondary school will yield potential savings of
    £113,000 plus £510 for each surplus place removed.”

    A lot of the shortfall in funding for schools is due to the 22 LEAs eating up their education grant allocation in administration and office maintenance and, of course, duplication of functions but more money is lost because historically those Councils have been politically unable to close small schools. It is only recently that Local Authorities have been virtually forced to close and amalgamate schools. Ironic that Leighton Andrews should undermine a vital policy of his own making for the exact reasons that local councillors failed to act…..political expediency.

  10. There is no doubt that Leighton Andrews was a big politica hitter for the WG and the labour party though I suspect that he will be much less of a heavyweight for a few years at least.
    GTD in his sychophantic article above has, unsurprisingly, nothing but praise for the erstwhile Minister. What he failed to mention was that LA was a self seeking bully who tried, unsuccessfully, to push the education sector around yet failed in nearly all his initiatives to change anything! You do not lead change from the back, pushing and bullying. You seek common ground for improvement, lead by example and build a vision and consensus that will achieve the end result. Wise up LA, and other Ministers, you are where you are to be the force for positive change not negative bullying and self aggrandisment!

  11. Llafur have put in place a string of disastrous ‘Ministers’ of Education – Leighton Andrews will probably be remembered as the one who put another couple of courses of bricks on the wall that separates their perpetual ideology-driven failure from like-for-like comparison with the rest of the UK where standards seem, at least, to be in slow decline rather than in terminal decline.

    Is there an undisclosed sub-plot? Being a natural sceptic, I can’t help wondering just how much bad news is sitting in, or is about to land in, Huw Lewis’ in-tray? PISA – anybody really expecting any improvement? GCSEs with increased rigour – quite a scary prospect… ‘National’ Reading and Numeracy Test results could prove embarrassing… Have they finally run out of Welsh speaking teachers to staff so-called English medium schools… Have English speaking parents finally figured out they’ve been conned about the so-called benefits of Welsh medium and bi-lingual education? Have the Universities refused to cut back on their multi-million pound white elephants?

    With Llafur failure is not an option – it’s a way of life!

  12. There is one point I agree with Terry Mackie on and that is his view that:

    “… he is being mindful of his reputation and future prospects. This adds up to a leadership challenge. He has a big following inside the party, politics and the nation.”

    Leighton Andrews is too intelligent not to know what his dilemma was and its implications. It has also emerged that he was warned by Carwyn Jones about his positioning, regarding the alleged A and E closure in his constituency, prior to the Primary School incident. This was therefore no accident but the result of political calculation. Clearly he was not willing to risk his electoral chances in the Rhondda for the sake of someone else’s Government (namely Carwyn Jones). If it was his own Government His calculation would probably be of a different order.

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