Standards over structures

Rajvi Glasbrook-Griffiths reviews ‘Ministering to Education’ by Leighton Andrews.

‘State education served me well. I’m determined that it should serve all young people well.’

This is Leighton Andrews’ driving ideology throughout Ministering to Education, and one that permeated his professional purpose as Minister for Education, 2009-2013. This sense of purpose is apparent in all the excessive initiatives and documentation pulped, authorities merged, schools and authorities dragged into special measures, grant funding reallocated, teacher training boosted, priorities re-examined and pared-down priorities formed.

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Making him Minister for Education was, according to Andrews, a powerful signal from Carwyn Jones that ‘for the education sector business as usual in Wales was over and transformation would begin.’

Four years on, this transformation cannot have missed the attention and working life of any member of the teaching profession in Wales. The Literacy and Numeracy Framework – delivering vehicle of Andrews’ emphasis on placing Literacy and Numeracy at the heart of all learning – has infused the curriculum and is certainly filtering through. It also appears to be visibly tightening standards in teaching and learning. As a working teacher I welcome this raising of expectations, with ‘outcomes not output’, ‘standards over structures’ at core. As Andrews admits, the word ‘standards’ did not feature in the 2007 Welsh Labour election manifesto.

As with all such things, the proof will be in the Test results. The National Reading and Numeracy Tests will be a benchmark, whilst the ultimate marker of gain will remain the PISA tests, arguably an overblown preoccupation but undeniably a yardstick by which to measure restoration of faith in the Welsh education system.

His third, underpinning, priority is that of reducing the impact of poverty and deprivation on opportunity and education:

My philosophy of education was very simple. It was that a child in Maerdy in my Rhondda constituency, one of the most deprived communities in Wales, should have the same life chances as a child in Monmouth, one of the richest parts of Wales.

Schools performing extraordinarily well in deprived communities are named and praised. Amongst them are Treorchy in Andrews’ own Rhondda constituency, Sandfields in Neath, St. Mary Immaculate in Cardiff and Llanwern High in Newport which, under Headteacher Peter Jenkins, was one of the two most improved schools for GCSE results in 2013. Inversely, the shock waves still reverberate from placing Monmouth, a “coasting” LEA, in special measures.

There’s impassioned feeling against socio-economic determinism and Andrews derives the term inverse learning law to describe a situation whereby the educational opportunities and experiences received offer themselves in an amount directly disproportional to the need for them. The indefensible ‘poor dab’ mentality has perpetuated this for a while now; a dire shame for a country once so proud of its culture of autodidacts, Institutes and empowering libraries. The Poverty Deprivation Grant and The Communities First Pupil Deprivation Match Fund are two examples of direct pots of money for schools earmarked for direct ground-level impact. This is refreshing. Although, and not without some irony, funding is not always the solution. Candid, Andrews admits, ‘spending and standards are different issues.’

Candour is a real strength of the book, particularly so in the clarity with which Andrews describes the workings of ministerial duties and life: ‘I believe individuals as ministers can make a difference. But context, often, is all.’ The meetings; the people; the internal power-jostling; the ‘silo-mentality’ blocking so much inter-departmental communication; lack of corporate memory; dubious degrees of accountability; initiative compounding initiative within a culture of cosy consensus in, too often, a ‘quango mentality culture of sweetheart deals with local authorities’: all pitfalls described with vim, humour and self-deprecation.

The challenges of shaping of education within a culture of devolved policy making and public administration, as described, provide an interesting insight into the more significant power-struggles at play – those between a devolved Welsh government and the UK government. ‘We need more reflection on devolved politics – on what has gone well and on what has gone wrong – away from the self-important rhetoric of the Assembly Chamber and the glib simplicities of a TV studio’, Andrews argues. That reflection and dialogue may take many forms, but take place it must.

Within bureaucracies – and you will see this all the time in Welsh local government, the land of little empires – too often you find process stifling creativity, slowing down decisions, with power trips preventing effective collaboration and innovation. I was determined the Education Department would work speedily, effectively.

Andrews’ references and sources of inspiration are a respectable and important amalgam of historical and current – amongst them E.P. Thomson, Christopher Hill, Raymond Williams, Dai Smith, David Blunkett, Michael Barber, Michael Fullan and Stefan Collini. However, they remain politically narrow and self-fulfilling. A broader political spectrum would be more admirable, if only to provide Andrews with stronger ammunition against things he so deeply opposes – namely grammar schools, academies being left to market forces alone, and educational privilege. There is, unsurprisingly, a blinkered over-regard for all ideals New Labour. If this is surprising in a Labour Minister, it is only because there is some promise of a more academically, broadly informed perspective. Jibes against Tories as ‘Cereal Killers’ and wagers of a supposed ‘War on Wales’ detract from the higher message of the book, and out of date pot shots at Thatcher endanger Andrews’ higher ideological ground.

Institution-to-institution cooperation is a highly viable way forward, to Andrews’ mind. This is in increasing operation already, in School Improvement Groups (‘sigs’), Professional Learning Communties (PLCs), Lead Practitioner/Emerging School pairings and amongst a rising culture of mutually beneficial working parties sharing practice between schools. Are the Cooperative schools the Welsh alternative to academies? Very possibly. Andrews argues that a system of federalised Headteachers and governors are in line with a Welsh tradition of mutuality. I work in a school significantly committed to this ethos and thoroughly believe in the value of this way of working.

Leighton Andrews’ time as Head of Communications at the BBC has certainly served him well. With his astute awareness of media habits in Wales, he successfully endowed Education a broader appeal through Welsh television news. Moreover, Andrews personally never seems to be out of the Western Mail. At the time of writing, extracts from Ministering to Education are in press print. As yet Huw Lewis doesn’t get the same volume of coverage in the media. It comes as little surprise that nor does he get much coverage in this book. ‘Reform needs not more initiatives but relentless implementation,’ advises Michael Barber. However, steady, principled reinforcement is not as politically sexy. Truman’s words come to mind – ‘It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.’

At times the whole text reads like an extended polemic – the language is rhetorical and there is much repetition. All perpetuates to feed the query which niggles throughout: why has Andrews written this book at all? And, more importantly, why has he chosen to publish it at this point? He is no longer the Minister for Education and, at the time of writing this, he was a backbencher. The message is clear: all this reform, and all the fruit it will inevitably bear, is Leighton Andrews’ handiwork. Lest we attribute credit elsewhere.

Rajvi Glasbrook-Griffiths is English Coordinator at Glanusk Primary School, Newport

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