Leighton Andrews, the Welsh Minister for Education and Skills, who is the Welsh Labour AM for Rhondda, has written a long thoughtful article about Welsh Education called: 'Education and the Welsh Public Sphere'. The article touches interestingly on the English Question.
Unfortunately Mr Andrews suffers from a common myopia over the distinction between 'English' and 'British'. So I have written to him as follows:-
"Dear Mr Andrews,
I want to say a few words about the development of policy on education and higher education in the context of contemporary debates on the future of the United Kingdom. I think it is time to make the case that it isn’t necessarily Alex Salmond alone who is the biggest threat to the unity of the United Kingdom. The UK coalition government’s policy of what I want to call ‘English exceptionalism’ is as damaging, and so is the Westminster political and media class, mired in what both Lord Morgan of Aberdyfi, Kenneth O.Morgan the historian, and Raymond Williams separately called their ‘metropolitan provincialism’.
The UK coalition government presumes that it can speak for the whole of the UK.. It is clear that they have not thought through the detail of their policies and their implications for the whole of the UK, particularly where their UK-wide policies may require active co-operation from the devolved administrations.
We live in a Wales of course where the bulk of people get their news from newspapers written in London. It is perhaps not surprising that when they engage with issues of education policy in Wales it is on the occasions that they think of us as exotic or backward.
Exhibit 9: The devolution dividend
So when we took a decision on HE tuition fees that was different from the UK coalition government, the (slide) Telegraph and (slide) Mail in particular didn’t like it, both branding it educational apartheid.
Exhibit 10: Daily Telegraph – Apartheid
Exhibit 11: Daily Mail – Apartheid
Even the BBC were a bit shocked. An old friend contacted me on Facebook to say
“Leighton – wish you’d seen the response in the newsroom…think the penny dropped at last about the reality of devolved powers. Da iawn.”
Exhibit 12: Response
I responded in the Guardian, pointing out
- I am responsible for the student support arrangements for students domiciled in Wales. The Scottish government is responsible for students domiciled in Scotland. Northern Ireland ministers in their assembly for students domiciled in Northern Ireland. And – wait for it – Vince Cable and David Willetts in the UK coalition government for students domiciled in England. They are welcome to follow our example in Wales.
- If that puts us in the European mainstream, while England swims in a different direction, so be it.
Exhibit 13: A-levels
On 31st March Michael Gove wrote to me stating the actions he intended to take in respect of A Levels. On 3rd April, coinciding with a letter back to Michael Gove from the Chief Executive of the English regulator, Ofqual, the front page of the Daily Telegraph was headlined ‘Dons take charge in A-level shake-up’. The article said ‘universities will be given new powers to set A-levels for the first time in 30 years because of fears that the gold standard qualification is failing to prepare teenagers for the demands of higher education. Ministers will relinquish control of syllabuses and hand them to exam boards and academic panels made up of senior dons from Russell Group universities’. As the vice-chancellor of Aberystwyth rightly said ‘the Russell Group universities are important and have a powerful brand – but there are other universities that we know have excellence in student experience and teaching. Why would you not want to include those universities if the option became available?’
The article was accompanied by an editorial highly favourable to Michael Gove and his ‘characteristic boldness’.
Now, I have known Michael Gove since he was a journalist on Grampian television. I quite like him. I told him when we met in summer 2010 that one of the advantages of devolution was that it allowed England to be a laboratory for experiments.
But one of the problems of the over-centralization of our print media is the likely confusion of Welsh parents and pupils over what its actually happening. If Michael Gove says that A levels or GCSEs are too weak and need to be strengthened –in the process, for example, radically simplifying the debate over modular and linear forms of assessment – then that is what the so-called national newspapers will report. Given their reach into Wales, a perspective on those exams is given, largely unchallenged. The nuances, for example, of the research on A-Levels amongst HEIs and employers that was undertaken jointly by Ofqual, the Welsh government and the Northern Ireland regulator, get ignored. And while the reality of devolution is that decisions are for us to take, and our policy autonomy is unchallenged, if the validity of the exams has been publicly questioned, then it has an impact on the confidence that people place on exams taken here too.
In his letter to me, Michael Gove accepted that A-Levels were a three-country issue affecting students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. But he failed to consult either me or the Northern Ireland Minister before rushing to the UK media with his plans.
The same could be said for his proposals last year to change the direction of travel for GCSEs, announced on the Andrew Marr show on 26th June 2011, again without Ministerial discussion with Wales and Northern Ireland.
The reality now, in respect of both A-Levels and GCSEs, is that we are seeing, without debate, a dismantling of the three-country system for public examinations. The Northern Ireland examining body has already decided it will not offer its exams in England. It had a tiny share compared to the WJEC, but this is a symbolic and significant step. John O’Dowd, the education minister in Northern Ireland decided that they would leave the decision on modular GCSEs to schools, saying that Michael Gove’s decision ‘did not appear to have been taken on the basis of clear evidence or educational justification’. In Wales, we have made it clear that our decisions on qualifications will be made on the basis of evidence and that is why we are conducting a full review of qualifications for 14-19.
There have been failures to consult us effectively on the remit of cross-border bodies such as the School Teachers Review Body.
In terms of welfare reform, the UK Government takes England as the default model for service delivery, and is still unable to answer key questions we have as to how they intend to mandate people on to devolved services or withhold training allowances including Welsh Government allowances, from trainees who have a benefit sanction imposed or pending.
We also expect the UK Government to honour its commitments under the Welsh Language Act. It was therefore particularly disappointing that in November 2011 the UK Government wrote to all teachers in Wales through the medium of English only. I objected to this, and the Schools Minister Nick Gibb subsequently apologised to me for the failure to issue the letter bilingually. I am sure that the Welsh Language Commissioner will be looking carefully at the exercise by UK Government departments of their responsibilities in Wales in the future.
I think there are a number of interesting issues for academic exploration in the relationship between central and devolved governments.
But what is really happening is deeply cultural. UK coalition government ministers often have UK-wide responsibilities. But sometimes its Ministers are largely Ministers for England; sometimes they exercise cross-border England and Wales responsibilities; sometimes they operate in an environment where policies have traditionally been developed, as with GCSEs and A-levels, on a tri-partite basis.
Exhibit 14: English Exceptionalism
They operate, in practice, on the assumption that England is the norm. In this, they are demonstrating what Martin Kettle recently in the Guardian called ‘England’s institutionalised indifference about the non-English parts of Britain’. The coalition government’s response reflects the timeless born-to-rule assumptions of the English public school system that trained administrators to run an empire – the imposition of an English exceptionalism that today threatens the unity of the United Kingdom itself.
When Seymour Martin Lipset’s American Exceptionalism book came out in 1996 I recall a frisson of excitement amongst the Conservative Party policy wonks who used to attend the receptions and dinners and visits to the Proms that the then BBC Head of Public Affairs used to have to organise. Whoever he was. Was there not, I heard some of them say, a kind of English exceptionalism that underpinned the conservatism of England – the kind of individualist, mercantile philosophy which differentiated English from continental history? Many of those people, of course, subsequently went on to hold positions under the Conservative party of David Cameron.
What they meant then by that label of ‘English exceptionalism’ is different from what I mean by it. Under the coalition, it is English policy that is moving away from the other constituent nations of the UK. English exceptionalism is the political practice of this Conservative-led coalition.
Martin Kettle rightly said in his Guardian article that ‘the London press must get out more. It needs to make a much more conscious and deliberate effort to report Scotland and Wales to England, as well to discharge a British responsibility to report to and for Scotland and Wales themselves.’
Martin Kettle is right. None of the broadsheets adequately covers Wales. The weekly political press like the New Statesman or the Spectator never do. Most of the think-tanks and party pressure groups rarely engage with devolved issues. The specialist press, like the Times Higher and TES, do to be fair look at what we are doing – the TES normally on a weekly basis.
The institution with the biggest responsibility to report Britain to itself is of course the BBC, which on a regular basis goes through paroxysms of neurosis about whether it is reflecting the UK adequately, then shortly after forgets all about it again.
Before Rhodri Morgan made me a Deputy Minister in 2007, I was writing a book on the BBC and Britishness. Indeed, I gave a version of the first two chapters to a seminar here chaired by Professor Tom O’Malley. I had about 70,000 words written and it was due to be published in 2008 by UWP. They were, I think, the wrong 70,000 words, but never mind. One day I will return to it.
Jeremy Hunt may be the Murdochs’ favourite Culture Secretary, and Jim Naughtie’s favourite mispronunciation, but his tenure has been marked by an unprecedented assault on public service broadcasting, both in the hasty re-negotiation of the BBC Licence Fee, and the cut in the S4C budget.
Indeed, the most damaging thing to happen to the Welsh language in the last two years was the decision by the UK Government to abandon the funding formula for S4C, set down in statute, without any effective public debate. The budgetary loss to the Welsh language in the five years to 2014–15 will be at least £60 million.
It is clear that in terms of language policy at least, the Welsh Government will need to take a closer view of the impact of broadcasting policy on the Welsh language.
Broadcasting, of course, was not part of the devolution settlement. But the reality of post-devolution Wales has made it clear that new processes of engagement with the Assembly will be required. That is an argument I made in Media, Culture and Society and in Cyfrwng some time ago, before becoming a Minister. And although my party said at the last Assembly elections that we were not seeking its devolution in the immediate future, the current Minister responsible for broadcasting in the Welsh Government has said that he is “sympathetic” to the case for some form of devolution in the future.
Change will happen, just as the European Union slowly evolved over time its own responsibilities over transnational broadcasting, despite hostility from member-states.
English exceptionalism also surfaces in HE policy. The Higher Education Policy Institute recently published a report on Universities and constitutional change in the UK, looking at the impact of devolution on the higher education sector. I broadly agree with its conclusion that ‘the social democratic governments in the devolved countries have shown little appetite for the market-based reforms adopted in England and while acknowledging the need to maintain the autonomy of universities they seem to be moving in some respects in the direction of a more traditional European model of higher education’. I have said on numerous occasions in the past that we prefer to plan the development of our higher education sector, not leave it to the market.