Andrews v Gove – The plot thickens

The ongoing spat between Welsh Education Minister, Leighton Andrews and England’s Education Secretary, Michael Gove deepened yesterday following the announcement in Westminster of reforms to the examination system.

Following a public spat between Cardiff Bay and Whitehall which has seen Leighton Andrews, as the regulator in Wales order a complete remark of all English Language GCSE papers taken over the Summer and Michael Gove accusing him of politicising the process, the very same Gove has now called on Wales to positively embrace his reforms.

Responding to questioning from the Conservative MP for the Vale of Glamorgan, Alun Cairns, the Secretary of State, a member of a Government whose leader called for a culture of respect between London and the devolved administrations declared:

“As someone married to a Welsh girl, it grieves me that the Welsh education system went backwards under Labour, and it grieves me even more that every objective assessment of what has happened under Labour in Wales shows that education has improved more quickly and effectively in England than in Wales. I hope that the Education and Skills Minister in Wales will embrace the progressive reforms that the coalition Government have put forward. He now has an opportunity to show that he is ready to operate in a constructive fashion.”

With Cardiff due to publish its own proposals for the future of the exams system in November, Andrews duly responded by dubbing the Gove reforms a “backwards step”. He told BBC Radio 4’s World at One yesterday:

“It sounds to me as though it’s a backwards step for England to be honest. This doesn’t sound like a 21st Century solution, it sounds like a solution developed in the latter half of the 20th Century.

“We are carrying out a full review of qualifications which we embarked on last year and we want a qualifications system that is understood by employers, prepares pupils for further learning and is easily understood by pupils and parents.

“GCSEs were introduced by a conservative government in the 1980s and are a very strong brand. I don’t know what the outcome of our qualifications review will be.

“It might be that we keep GCSEs in Wales. I think there’s been a lot of support for GCSEs.”

To add to the twist, the Cardiff based WJEC exam board which Leighton Andrews ordered to re-mark the English papers in Wales last night seemingly came out in support of Michael Gove’s plan, declaring in a statement that it was “extremely interested in developing ambitious new EBC qualifications proposed for England by the Minister for Education.”

However in Andrews’ corner came the support of the Welsh teachers union, UCAC who argued that the Welsh Government was taking a more measured approach to reform. Speaking following Gove’s statement, Rebecca Williams, the union’s policy officer explained:

“The GCSE English language debacle has exposed in a devastating manner the difficulties of a cross-border qualifications system in which governments share responsibility for some elements, and where responsibility for other elements is quite separate,” she said.

“Michael Gove’s statement is a unilateral statement about the future of exams in England. To the extent that there’s been any debate at all, Wales hasn’t been part of it. It looks increasingly likely that qualifications, at least at age 16, are going in separate directions in the two countries, and that may well be for the best.

“Scotland doesn’t seem to have problems getting its qualifications recognised by colleges, universities or employers. Why should Wales? Or England, for that matter, if they change first?”

Having already indicated that it is all but inevitable that the UK will end up “with largely separate exam systems in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland”, Gove’s plans will probably have nudged Leighton Andrews many steps forward in that direction.

Commenting on the developments for the New Statesman website yesterday, Owen Smith, the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales observed:

“What does it tell us that a Scottish Tory, ensconced in a London Department whose writ does not run in Cardiff or Belfast or Edinburgh, should show so little respect for the opinions or actions of the devolved administrations? Two things: first, that the Conservatives have abandoned all pretence of being a “One Nation” party; and, second, that short-term political advantage for a floundering Tory party is increasingly set to trump good government in the national interest.

“Labour, the party of devolution, remains determined to act in the national interest, of each of the nations and regions of the UK and of Great Britain as a whole. Developing and deepening democracy in the UK requires that devolution is respected when different administrations, whatever their political stripe, take different decisions that they believe to be in the best interests of the people they serve. It also requires closer collaboration than we see at present between the different administrations, especially in areas of public services where there is overlap, mutual interest or reliance, shared markets, resources or challenges. Funding for social care or higher education are two such areas where collaborative reform and mutually agreed frameworks might afford significant benefits over the discrete solutions that apply at present.”

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