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.

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