Education – a report card

Dr Julian Skyrme reviews ‘A Class Apart: Learning the Lessons of Education in Post-Devolution Wales’ by Gareth Evans

A Class Apart: Learning the Lessons of Education in Post-Devolution Wales

Gareth Evans

Welsh Academic Press, 2015, £16.99

‘Devolution gave Wales an opportunity. It opened new doors and gave Welsh ministers freedom to break from the unilateral education system that had existed previously.’ 

The effectiveness of educational reforms in post-devolution Wales are the subject of Gareth Evans’ A Class Apart. The Education Correspondent of The Western Mail, he began his role around the time of Leighton Andrews’ appointment as Education Minister and the book focuses on the policy reforms that Andrews, and his predecessor Jane Davidson, implemented during a tumultuous period for Welsh schools, colleges and universities.

With a shadow cast across Welsh education standards in the past decade, the book begins by highlighting a forgotten and inconvenient truth: in the period prior to devolution, Wales’ education system was actually performing above England on most measures.

The Welsh Government needed little encouragement in forging its own educational course in the immediate post-devolution years. The former drama teacher Jane Davidson, Minister for Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills between 2000 and 2007, is associated with the ‘made in Wales’ policies in this period. The book points to how many of her policies have stood the test of time, such as the child-centred Foundation Phase, Welsh Baccalaureate and commitment to comprehensive education.

Noting ‘there was some doubt as to whether the Assembly Government was taking an alternative course for the sake of it’, Evans employs hindsight to question many aspects of this particularly inventive period of Welsh education policy. The scrapping of primary Standard Attainment Tests (SATs) and secondary performance tables, the growing funding gap in education between England and Wales and the ‘huge disappointment’ of the Programme for International Assessment (PISA) results in 2006 are employed as cases in point.

Evans spends little time on the ‘largely uneventful’ reign of Jane Hutt between 2007-2009. Instead the majority of his analysis focuses on the work of one man, the former head of public affairs at the BBC and Barry-educated Leighton Andrews, who was Education Minister between 2009 and 2013. Evans does not hide his admiration for Andrews’ more direct and combative approach, saying ‘He had his own style that was not to everyone’s liking, but he was, arguably, exactly what Wales needed’.

The account of Andrews begins with his ‘Made in Wales’ policy to protect Welsh students from the trebling of tuition fees. But most attention is given to his 20-point plan for educational reform in Wales. Following more damning PISA results in 2010, Evans called this ‘the most radical raft of educational proposals ever introduced in Wales’. Add to this Robert Hill’s 85 options for improving every facet of educational delivery, and it’s easy to see why Evans was not short of material.

 Drawing on an impressive range of interview sources and statistical evidence, Evans offers a forensic examination of Andrews’ less consensual approach with the teaching profession, unions, local authorities and even his own department. He covers the protracted merger discussions among higher education institutions in south Wales with some revealing behind-the-scenes accounts. And like most accounts of the UK education system, the book is comparatively light on the further education sector, which Evans attributes to the ‘good work and high esteem in which it is held’.

The concluding chapters follow Andrews’ dramatic resignation in 2013 for breaking the Ministerial Code and the early tenure of his successor Huw Lewis. The book is enriched by the first comprehensive interview with Andrews since he stepped down. Convinced he has ‘unfinished business’, Evans probes him over whether he’d return to education if asked by the First Minister, to which Andrews replied ‘Well if he asked me, of course I would.’ So watch this space.

As the first chronological account of education since devolution, A Class Apart makes essential reading for anyone involved in the Welsh education system. Given the book’s appeal to researchers, education professionals and the policy community, the addition of a subject index would allow even quicker access to its extensive analysis.

Evans should be praised for revealing the personalities and politics behind key policy developments in an accessible, uncompromising, but fair, style. As Wales embarks on further educational reform, the biggest contribution of A Class Apart might be to remind future policy makers that ‘there must be far greater collaboration between providers . . . an onus on quality and not quantity . . .  and most of all we must learn from past mistakes’.

Dr Julian Skyrme is Director of Social Responsibility at The University of Manchester. Hailing from Rhondda Cynon Taff, he takes a keen interest in the Welsh education system.

7 thoughts on “Education – a report card

  1. I suspect Gareth Evans’ book went to press just before the FoIA figures showing that WM education under-performs EM education on a like-for-like basis came into the public domain. Likewise the evidence that WM education does significant damage to L1 English kids’ education overall because they don’t usually become proficient enough in Welsh to get the best out of the rest of the curriculum. To make the book current it could do with a revised edition IMHO.

    This has always been a problem – books take so long to produce they are seldom up to date in a fast moving world. Or a fast declining world as Welsh education has been since devolution…

  2. In the period before devolution Welsh education was out performing English education. The period before devolution includes the Stone Age and the Bronze Age. What are we talking about? Welsh education outperformed the English in the 1960s. I don’t believe it did so in either the 1980s or the 1990s. If that is right, devolution has not much to do with the relative decline. One important factor was that in the era of selective secondary education a much higher proportion of Welsh children went to grammar school than was true in most of England. With the coming of comprehensive secondary education that relative advantage was lost. The relative decline of the Welsh economy with the progressive collapse of heavy industry from the 1970s increased the incidence of poverty with all of the social problems, including lower educational attainment, that entails. Policy errors or successes by the devolved government have had surely a piddling effect one way or the other compared with those big factors. That said, their performance has not been good. The removal of public measurement of school performance under pressure from the NUT was though clearly a big mistake – now partly reversed. The devolved government has also under-funded education to feed the black hole of the health service ( a bias which the Conservatives want to make worse!) and also diverted money into the budget of the Economics ministry, presumably to bribe companies into Wales. Another mistake. However even perfect policy would not yet have fully reversed a relative decline dating back decades.

  3. The problem with John R Walker is that his views are so obviously partisan. Therefore, when he does make a half decent point, it is almost instantly discredited.

  4. “….views so obviously partisan.” And of course views stridently opposed to J Walker’s are reasonable and non partisan? In Wales we have had 30 years of the Welsh Language Board with the dual responsibilities of collecting statistics and evaluating the success of Welsh language measures and simultaneously promoting the use of Welsh and increasing the number of Welsh speakers. We now have a Welsh Language Commissioner whose job is to enforce and monitor measures aimed at increasing Welsh language use and protecting Welsh speakers from any restraint on their right to use their language.

    I won’t go into the many and varied organisations with the aim of “protecting” Welsh speakers rights.

    The problem is that now, having seen education as the tool by which the Welsh language could be extended throughout Wales, and having had decades of propaganda aimed at just that outcome, we have become incapable of taking a step back and asking “Is this working?”. Vested interest is such that every small voice that questions the use of Welsh medium schooling as an effective means of EDUCATION rather than as a social “weapon” for the building of a unique, separate and ultimately Welsh speaking nation is shouted down and branded “anti Welsh bigotry.”

    How is reasonable debate possible in this atmosphere? If anyone were to look carefully at the data it would be blindingly obvious that Welsh medium schooling is failing a significant group of pupils and that the much vaunted advantages of Welsh/English bilingualism are often mythical whilst the downsides are very real.

    It’s worth bearing in mind just how carefully education outcomes are monitored in Wales. We measure outcomes at every keys stage in relation to these factors: Eligibility for free school meals (deprivation)

    “gender, ethnicity, English as an additional language, special educational needs, absenteeism and month of birth.”

    And every year we compare WM with EM schools according to free school meals bands….except we never allow the bands to coincide with one another.

    We don’t, of course, look at that group of pupils who are English first language but who are either placed in WM schools or forced into WM schools. I wonder why?

  5. This is a good and fair review of the most important book written so far on our schools under devolution. Gareth Evans deserves the praise for putting together his historical account with panache and critical research. Evans is a seriously good journalist for such a young man and Wales is lucky to have him holding the fort almost single-handledly for the national press. The book itself is a bit shy on the thorny questions of bilingualism policy, which is why I think some of the comments submitted are fair play. But if you want the most informed assessment of the last five years in education policy and excellent political profiles from a guy seriously in the know, start with this book. The title is a tease, of course. Is our system apart in any real sense and what class are we judging it? And is ‘apartness’ related to objective worth?

  6. One more inconvenient truth – Leighton Andrews lowered standards to ensure more people passed exams. JJ raises the question that others are too timid to ask. I ask another. Why, in a bilingual nation, do we not have a bilingual anthem? This would be a better use of Gareth’s time.

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