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Plans, policy & point-scoring

Part-reflection, part-justification, and part ministerial handbook, Dewi Knight reviews Ministering to Education, the new book by former Welsh education minister Leighton Andrews. Set against a backdrop of political and ideological lines that divided nations more than the left or right, Andrews' work is essential reading for all in UK higher education policymaking.
This article is more than 9 years old

Dewi Knight is Senior Education Adviser, China at the British Council. He previously worked in policy, strategy and communications roles for the University of Bedfordshire, The Open University and the Liberal Democrats. He is a member of Wonkhe’s Editorial Group.

‘Ministering to Education a reformer reports’ by Leighton Andrews, former Minister for Education & Skills in the Welsh Government. Parthian Books, 2014.

Leighton Andrews become Minister for Education in the Welsh Government on the 10th of December 2009. It was 15 years to the day that Sir Keith Joseph passed away. Joseph, the most loyal of Thatcherite lieutenants and described by the Iron Lady as ‘one of England’s greatest men’, found his time as Education Secretary defined by the introduction of GCSEs and proposals on tuition fees.

More than a quarter of a century later, Andrews would also see his four years as Minister twist on the issues and implications of examinations and higher education reform.

Ministering to Education is part-reflection, part-justification, and part ministerial handbook. Our author sets out his ‘philosophy’ early on:

“A child in Maerdy (Rhondda), one of the most deprived communities in Wales, should have the same life chances as a child in Monmouth, one of the richest parts”.

It would be easy to refer to the late Simon Hoggart’s ‘law of the ridiculous reverse’. If an opposite of a statement is absurd – it’s not worth making in the first place. Who would dare say that D’Arcy from Monmouth deserves greater life chances than Dylan in Maerdy…?

Indeed, Michael Gove, England’s erudite Riddler taking on Cardiff Bay’s caped crusader in the ‘educational war on Wales’ (Andrews’s own words) set out his own guiding principle in 2012. The lack of social mobility through education in England was ‘For those of us who believe in social justice this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible.’ Not so different after all, perhaps.

Beyond the rhetoric, and amongst the relentless mergers, reforms, rationalisations, binned initiatives and programmes, Andrews provides an illuminating guide to the opportunities and challenges of delivering education policy in a devolved setting.

“Ministers need to be able to lead on policy…have a sound view of priorities, a close eye on budgets, understanding of legal boundaries, a real overview of issues to come at them from within the department, and good intelligence on what is happening in Wales and UK.”

He comes into post wanting a ‘big emphasis on standards’. Although he is always (over?) keen to emphasise his time in office as continuing, or completing, the work of previous ministers, he pointedly remarks that Welsh Labour’s 2007 manifesto did not mention standards once.

It’s not just standards in the sector that need to be improved. There’s a department to sort out as well. He notes a ‘real lack of urgency’ in the education department, with ‘weak’ papers going to Cabinet. This ‘dysfunctional’ department gets a new focus through a monthly policy board to ‘examine thorny issues’.

In his resolve to set the direction and shake-up the department, Andrews is inspired by Michael Barber’s work at No 10 as head of delivery. Andrews gets Barber to run a seminar on priority setting for his officials. The now Pearson Chief Education Adviser also writes the foreword to this book, and the reader leaves this memoir with the impression that he, alongside the skilful former NUS Wales President Katie Dalton, were the key direct influences on policy and strategy between 2009 and 2013.

It’s not just the department’s failings, or the Tory-Lib Dem coalition that rile Andrews. Labour in England ‘lost sight of the moral imperative’ in education reform post 2001. Too much focus on structural reform. Structures beget bureaucracies, from Welsh local government ‘the land of little empires’ to the misguided English focus on ‘market forces and parental choice (that) will determine all’.

Reading alongside Andrew Adonis’s Education, Education, Education where the former (Labour) English schools minister says that ‘parental choices are all-important’, is instructive in understanding that the dividing line is now as much between Wales (and the other Celtic countries) and mainstream English approaches on choice and competition, as it is between left and right or Labour and Conservative.

The theme, of ‘English Exceptionalism’, appeared regularly in Andrews’s speeches and remarks as Minister, and he picks it up again here with relish. His argues that the Welsh Government’s approach to higher education, influenced by ‘public priorities’ rather than ‘a market philosophy based on consumer sovereignty’ is in the European mainstream, and it is England that plotting a different course.

The ignorance of HEPI, the ‘metropolitan provincials’ in the London media, Whitehall civil servants and ministers in viewing policy and the situation in England as the ‘normative default’ is correctly highlighted. I would go further than Andrews and suggest that whilst we see Wales and Scotland pursuing higher education public policy in common with European norms, we should perhaps view England within a developing Anglo-Saxon model that shares more similarities with Australia and the United States. Andrews describes the English administration as the ‘loner howling in the attic’.

‘We preferred to plan the development of our higher education sector, not leave it to the market’ was Andrews’s mission statement on his government’s merger and funding agenda in Wales. He speaks, persuasively, of a Welsh higher education tradition rooted in a ‘particular set of economic, social and cultural circumstances and political struggles’. Those of us who view higher education as the great public good will welcome much of Andrews’s discourse on the local and national shape, and shaping of, universities.

What is perhaps less welcome, however, is the persistent polemical tone in much of the writing. In parts, we can all enjoy vice chancellors being chastised, or the Daily Mail being corrected, but Andrews is all too obvious in signposting allies and ambassadors.

His new director general for the department is a ‘shrewd and calm problem-solver’; the NUS President is ‘intelligent…convincing and persuasive’; Welsh Labour special advisers are ‘thoughtful’ and ‘clever and resourceful’, chairs of reviews are ‘well respected’. This approach is neatly captured in the one of the first acknowledgements. Neil Surman, head of the government’s higher education division (who I found a conscientious and thoughtful collaborator in negotiating part-time fees and funding) is thanked, not only leading ‘a great team’, but for having ‘sorted out tuition fee policy and the vice chancellors’!

Andrews’s view that VCs needed ‘sorting out’ was in early evidence in his ‘adapt or die’ message to the sector. He looks back at this challenge to Wales’s higher education leadership, both in capacity and attitude, within the context of a developing post-devolution national democracy and public sphere. Andrews is at pains to point out that a reduction in the number of Welsh universities had been previously recommended by the National Assembly’s education committee, by the Funding Council in the 1990s, and by previous Education Ministers.

Andrews describes meetings with vice chancellors as ‘weirdly unfocused and inconclusive’, directly contrasting it with the ‘well-crafted’ and ‘persuasive’ arguments from Katie Dalton from NUS. The controversial proposed merger of three post-92 institutions in the south east (Newport, Glamorgan & Cardiff Metropolitan) is explored in detail, with some scores, particular at the reluctant Cardiff Met being settled.

Their students’ union is ;ineffectual;; students directly lobby the Minister about course quality, and as Andrews pulls back from the threat to dissolve Cardiff Met (once Glamorgan and Newport agree to merge) he claims that Cardiff Met ‘was not important enough… to continue to waste energy on it’. Various barometers of Cardiff Met’s ‘poor’ performance are rattled off, but there is no space to record that in all of the most recent tables, including the National Student Survey, Cardiff Met is outperforming the merged University of South Wales.

Arguably the most interesting and thought-provoking chapter of the book comes at its conclusion. Andrews examines and exposes the ‘national’ UK media’s ignorance about government responsibilities across the nations. He addresses the same criticisms towards UK government ministers:

“Wales is used to alternative centres of power. I am not sure that UK ministers are.”

For those interested in the complexities of public policy and political and media culture, the last chapter is a must-read. It tells of a multi-national state that is yet to catch up with the reality of divergent government priorities and ambitions. It is Andrews at his best – thoughtful, pointed, and intellectually coherent.

The rest of the book sneers about a so-called ‘war on Wales’ being fought by the Coalition Government and civil servants and does little to burnish Andrews’s credentials as a serious, reforming, intellectually curious minister.

Elsewhere in the book, we see those qualities – the heft of his academic references, although not unpredictable (Raymond Williams, Dai Smith, and EP Thompson), provide rich context.

On higher education, we accompany Andrews on a seemingly repetitive cycle of sticking one to the Coalition Government – his figures add up better than theirs, he’s the European polymath outmanoeuvring the Little Englanders, and when he’s not showing them up he’s running rings around sometime coalition partners Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Tories and vice chancellors. Despite the emphasis on dividing lines and an opposition-like mentality, the book serves to remind us that Andrews was a government minister who truly had the confidence to govern. And there’s been too few of those in Wales.

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