Interview with Leighton Andrews: Public Services Minister and ex-Education Minister

Leighton_AndrewsLEIGHTON Andrews, the current Minister for Public Services for Wales and ex-Education Minister for Wales, took part in a public discussion with Vice-Chancellor April McMahon, offering the ‘inside story’ on key decisions and reforms made during his time as Education Minister.

The event, organised by the Institute of Welsh Politics, also coincided with the launch of Leighton Andrews new book, Ministering to Education, his memoirs about his time as Minister for Children, Education and Lifelong Learning in the Welsh Government.
The Courier was able to speak with him about his time in government.

You recently returned to government as Minister for Public Services. What are your main aims for the role?

Well we need to ensure in what are very difficult financial times that we’re still providing a good quality of public services to people in Wales, that we’re innovating, that we’re working smarter to provide services that offer different options, and within that I have an agenda that includes the need to reform local government.
There’s a general agreement that there are too many councils in Wales, and we’re embarking on reforms to change that. My portfolio also includes the gender based violence bill, which we’re taking forward and which will be ground breaking for the UK, and which is currently in its first stage of discussion in the assembly.

Why is Ceredigion County Council facing the biggest funding cut of all 22 Welsh councils?

We have a formula for the distribution of the money to councils, which is agreed by local government itself. It’s a very complicated formula which includes elements such as population measurement, sparseness of population, deprivation and so on. I had a meeting recently with council leaders where they were discussing the formula. I’ve not yet found a single leader who likes the formula but nobody can seem to come up with an alternative to it.
We put in place protection for local councils so that nobody received a cut of more than 4.5 percent; had we not put in protection then councils such as Ceredigion would have suffered even worse. As I say, this is a system that has been agreed by all local councils and there are winners and losers under this system. We’ve also put in additional funds to protect our pledge on additional funding going into schools of 1 percent above the block grant we get from the UK government, and also more money for social services.

You wanted to merge Aberystwyth and Bangor Universities. Do you still stand by this view?

I’m not sure I ever particularly wanted to merge Aberystwyth and Bangor – there was quite an entertaining amount of banter between some of the Student Union presidents from Bangor and Aberystwyth. There were proposals from the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales that Aberystwyth and Bangor should work more closely together, with the possibility of a future merger.
Certainly the idea of closer collaboration is important. There are questions over whether both universities should offer the same subjects. For example when I was a student, you could not study Law at Bangor – you could only study Law at Aberystwyth. That is no longer the situation.
I think there are lots of quite complicated areas, and certainly I know that the two universities have been working together more closely over the last two or three years, but I’m not sure I ever had a particular ambition to merge the two.

You said in 2011 that universities must “adapt or die”. In light of Aberystwyth University’s fall down league table rankings in the last few years, how would you apply this statement now to us?

I think the challenges facing quite a lot of universities in Wales is that there was a long period when we were very cautious and weren’t investing enough in our institutions. Now actually in the long term that may work in our favour, because quite a lot of English universities borrowed a lot of money at a time when interest rates were a lot higher, so some of our universities are playing catch up at the moment in borrowing to invest to improve the student experience, but they are able to do so at a time when interest rates are lower and they can get money from the bank at a cheaper rate.
I think Aberystwyth itself may not have invested at a time when it should have done, and now is having to play catch up in that regard, which may be why you’re seeing some of the issues that are affecting the university at the present time.

Welsh schools on the whole don’t perform as well as their UK counterparts, as shown by the Pisa report last December. Is the Welsh education policy failing, and what do you think needs to be done to turn the situation around?

I think Welsh education policy is now succeeding. We’ve started in the last few years to close the gap with England on people getting 5 good GCSEs in English or Welsh and maths, that’s been a very significant improvement.
There’s been a significant improvement in attendance at schools, which is very important because if young people aren’t at school they aren’t learning. This last year demonstrated a higher A Level grades.
These were all things which I identified back in 2011 as key to turning around the educational experience. I think the changes that we’ve brought in, the much more rigorous accountability, the better use of data, providing more information for parents, implementing tougher entry requirements for the teaching profession, bringing Teach First into Wales, introducing a Master’s in Education – all of those things I think slowly are starting to turn the situation around, and the evidence is that it is turning around.

What do you regard as your greatest achievement as Education Minister?

I think that in the short term, probably protecting Welsh students against higher tuition fees, but there could be such changes in English education policies – if the Labour government comes in next year then tuition fees will probably be reduced – in which case it could be a temporary policy, but I am proud of that.
I’m proud of implementing the school reforms, which have started to raise standards. We’ve reformed the qualification system and put more money into schools. I don’t think there’s just one thing that I’d like to hang my hat on.

Do you think, if English fees stay at £9000, that the Welsh Government can afford, long-term, to keep university fees for Welsh students at £3,685?

I think it is financially sustainable in that more students from England come to Wales than students from Wales go to England, so there is a cross-border transfer of money in. I think the question is whether this is a sustainable system for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
We now know that in England the system based on higher fees is actually costing the public purse more than the system it replaced, so I think the bigger sustainability issue is less about Wales than about the English system.

What do you think of the Coalition government’s education policies, particularly regarding the higher education sector?

Obviously we didn’t follow Michael Gove’s policies here in Wales. We didn’t introduce free schools or academies. We took a more nuanced and deliberate approach to the qualifications. We didn’t change GCSEs, and we didn’t uncouple AS from A2, and we seem to be supported in this by the University of Oxford, who disagreed with Michael Gove. I said back in 2010 that one of the advantages of devolution is that it allowed England to be a laboratory for experiments.

Labour has been the biggest party in the National Assembly since its creation. In your opinion, would the pace of progress have been accelerated if this hadn’t been the case, or has it meant that you can enact longer term change?

Labour has never had control of the Assembly, and there’s never been a clear Labour majority. To get our budget through every year we have to have an agreement with another party, even with thirty out of sixty seats.
This year we reached an agreement with the Liberal Democrats, and last year we reached an agreement with the Liberal Democrats and Plaid. It is a constant process of negotiations. I think there is certainly some stability, but we’ve never had complete control.