Andrews concedes that cuts imperil key pledges

24th September 2010 at 01:00
After nine months in the job, the plain-speaking education minister takes stock

When Leighton Andrews took over as education minister last December, his stated aim was to "keep it simple", promising fewer initiatives and less bureaucracy.

The announcement was music to the ears of Wales's educationalists, whose complaints of initiative overload had fallen on deaf ears while strategies and action plans flowed from Cardiff Bay.

Mr Andrews also promised to get better value for money from the Welsh education system, and quickly launched an independent spending review in a bid to get more money to the front line.

But as attention turns to the Westminster Government's comprehensive spending review, published next month, the minister has acknowledged for the first time that a key pledge to close the education funding gap between England and Wales is now in jeopardy.

First minister Carwyn Jones assumed his post with the promise that education spending would increase by 1 per cent above the block grant from Westminster each year.

But speaking to TES Cymru, Mr Andrews conceded that widely expected cuts to the grant will leave education in Wales vulnerable.

"Our commitment remains to protect schools and skills as far as we can," he said. "In order to understand what the overall impact is likely to be on the funding gap, certainly after this financial year, we will need to look at the impact on spending in England.

"The education budget in England will have to be spread more thinly to support the development of free schools and academies.

"Clearly, we can make more impact on that commitment when spending is rising, but we don't know what the context is going to be. We want to bridge that gap and we will continue to seek to do that."

Nine months into the job, Mr Andrews is sticking rigidly to his aims to cut bureaucracy and improve funding.

"We have undertaken a lot of change in the past decade," he said. "I'm keen to see a stronger focus on better implementation, fewer initiatives, keeping it simple. The mantra continues to drive what I'm doing."

Straight-talking and not afraid to speak his mind, Mr Andrews has already ruffled a few feathers by launching a stinging attack on the higher- education sector - calling it the "last resting place of the crachach (elite)" - and blasting local authorities for "dragging their feet" over post-16 reform.

He is also rumoured to have had significant ideological differences with his chief civil servant, David Hawker, culminating in Professor Hawker quitting his post to take up a Whitehall secondment last month.

Mr Andrews is also less keen than his predecessors to consult with educational bodies and teaching unions, leaving several high-profile organisations feeling snubbed.

But with an Assembly election just eight months away and funding and achievement gaps with England to address, perhaps the minister can be forgiven.

In terms of attainment, Wales slipped further behind the rest of the UK in A-level and top- grade GCSE results this year. Wales is also expected to perform poorly in the Pisa international student assessment results this December.

"I don't accept there's a decline at A-level, because the form of recording A-levels didn't give any effective credit to the Welsh Bac results," Mr Andrews said.

"I also don't see why public schools that happen to be based in England but actually draw their catchment on a UK and international basis should be included in the results at A-level and GCSE. I think that distorts the system. We have made significant strides forward but we can do better.

"The answer is to ensure strong leadership to get high-performing schools - and that's what the school effectiveness framework will underline. I think that's the starting point for raising standards."

Mr Andrews knows that he has a limited time in which to achieve his ambitious goals and leave a lasting legacy in the job he coveted, but it remains to be seen what his relentless drive and determination will deliver.


The married father of two is a passionate Cardiff City fan and a keen blogger and tweeter.

Former BBC head of public affairs; has run a number of businesses and worked for charity Age Concern and the UN International Year of Shelter for the Homeless.

1997 Co-founder of Yes for Wales campaign in the devolution referendum and later wrote Wales Says Yes, an account of the campaign for a National Assembly.

2003 Elected Labour AM for Rhondda.


Welsh teaching unions have demanded that education minister Leighton Andrews extend the deadline for responses to the education spending review.

In a joint statement this week, they said they "deplored" the way in which the minister had asked the sector to respond to the review, which was undertaken by PricewaterhouseCoopers earlier this year.

The Assembly government sent out a letter on July 22 challenging the sector to submit money-saving ideas; the deadline was September 20.

But the Standing Conference on Education in Wales (SCEW), comprising all the teaching unions, said schools have not had a fair chance to respond during the summer break.

The statement said: "A snapshot survey by all teaching unions showed that their members were unaware of the letter, and that there appears to have been no dialogue between schools and local authorities."

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