And It’s Goodbye From Him…

18 Jan

The big news in Welsh education over the weekend, and in fact in Welsh politics in general, is the announcement by Huw Lewis AM that he will be standing down as an Assembly Member at the next Welsh election in May.

The Wider Picture

There is never any guarantee of continuity after an election.  We could have an individual at the helm from a different political party should Labour not get back in, albeit that scenario seems unlikely on current polling data.  We could also have a new political party running education through a coalition.  A far more likely prospect.  Perhaps the more rumored and expected outcome, had Huw Lewis AM not been retained in post, would have been a return Labour minority government with the potential of a new Minister due to cabinet reshuffles.  Still, what we do have now is a cast iron guarantee that we will be heading into the second half of 2016 with a new man or woman in charge of the nations education services.

I’m a firm believer that education needs a long-term approach with continuity at the heart of the agenda.  Education policy takes many years to bed in and have a noticeable impact.  It is a generational change.  I’ve said time and time again that those nations whose education system are internationally lauded have generally undertaken a 10, 15, 20+ year journey.  To that end having another new Minister will be somewhat unsettling, although there is no saying if the policy direction will change with that appointment of course.

A further concern, teased out in the ITV interview I did over the weekend, was the risk to momentum that this announcement could create.  It has to be said that there seems a greater sense of optimism in Welsh education on a policy basis than at any other time since I took up my post.  That is not to say that everything in the garden is rosy.  Far from in on some levels.  However, there is certainly a sense of relative united support for some big policy projects such as the ‘New Deal’ for teachers and the curriculum reforms.  These have been developed, and are being developed, with a closer sense of cooperation between the Welsh Government, local authorities and schools than many other changes we have seen in the past.  Losing the Minister that initiated them will threaten that momentum. That said I think so long as there remains a commitment to the causes that shouldn’t derail progress.  The fact the Welsh Government gave Professor Donaldson the independence he needed to go about his work, and crucially have retained his input for the implementation stage of the curriculum, is a real boost in keeping this process going.  It is also positive that much of the legwork on curriculum reform and the new deal design is being done by the profession itself through pioneer schools. That should hopefully mitigate any possible turbulence a change in Minister could create.

Perhaps the big fear is the foot being taken off the gas.  There was always the risk of that happening in going into an election anyway.  I don’t have any doubts that Huw Lewis AM will remain committed until he signs off as Minister, but with an outgoing head of an organisation in place it does always ask questions of those working underneath.  That’s something we need to keep an eye on from top to bottom within the sector.

Reflections on the Minister

It is no doubt still early to be writing the obituaries of a Minister in post but I thought it was worth having a brief look back at some things given his announcement.

I think it is fair to say that Huw Lewis took over at a time when relations between the Welsh Government and the teaching profession were extremely strained.  His appointment was therefor very welcome simply because it presented the opportunity for a fresh start.  One I think both the Welsh Government and teachers very much needed to grasp.

In what seems like a different lifetime now I was formally a Plaid Cymru employee.  Huw Lewis, to me as someone who didn’t know him personally, appeared to represent the tribal politics of Labour.  (For the record I have no doubt that every party has its tribal stance.  I imagine back in my more blinkered days I could have been described in similar terms from another side of the argument.  I sincerely hope that I have proven to be far more mature in my relationships across the political divide in since leaving my job at the Assembly.  Having worked with politicians from every party I am sure it is an objective I have succeeded in).   With that in mind I did have some trepidation about the way the Minister would work.

I am pleased to say my preconceptions have been thoroughly confounded.  As an individual politician Huw Lewis may, or may not, be tribal in his approach.  I have never dealt with him outside education so could not say.  I can only confirm that he has proven to be a very constructive Minister to work with since his appointment.  There have been some major steps forward under Huw Lewis that have helped bring back the ability to have positive dialogue with the Welsh Government.  Even where there have been disagreements on policy, and there have been many still, they have been aired in a more conciliatory fashion, by all parties.  Compromises have been reached and a focus on understanding the rational and thinking of others is more central to this new approach.  It is this style and attitude that has enabled the Minister to secure such buy in from teachers to major changes in policy and one he should receive a lot of credit for.

Legacy is hard to evaluate for Education Minister’s as I have stated.  It takes time to see how things work and there is no security that Huw Lewis’s successor will not come in and simply rip up his work.  However, I think he can look back and recognize that he brought a more positive approach to cooperation between schools and government; he presided over the development of a new Welsh curriculum (albeit much of this work remains to be undertaken) and he has been perhaps the Minister most explicit about the need to address the gap in access for teacher’s continued professional development.

To be critical, I think it is a real shame there have been no strides to tackle the continued unpopular and divisive national testing, particularly for the very youngest pupils and in light of the fact the OECD and Donaldson curriculum review have noted they are not fit for the way we wish to deliver education in Wales.  It is also a shame that we continue to have major failings with our supply sector, including a controversial preferred bidder contract set up with one supply agency in particular.  Finally, our workload scandal continues, although it has to be stated that the Minister has taken steps to put this on the agenda for pioneer schools so his work there may yet yield some tangible changes in the future.

There is still time for the Minister to get to grips with these issues before he leaves of course and in fairness he has at least recognized the problems with supply which have for too long been ignored.

It is a shame the Minister is standing down when there is still so much work to do on some of the agendas that he has been so pivotal to developing.  That said, having worked for politicians in the past I have seen first hand the sort of pressures it puts on an individual.  You cannot therefore begrudge someone who has been an Assembly Member for almost 17 years wanting to have a change.

The Future

What Huw Lewis will leave is a lot of potential.  We have many strands of work open with a firm direction set.  Any new Minister will of course want to stamp their approach on their department and portfolio.  You can expect nothing less.  What I sincerely hope does happen is that whomever comes in continues to appreciate the need to secure support for, and support from, the teaching profession.  Any policy will fail if those delivering it are not convinced of its merits.  Perhaps Huw Lewis’s greatest achievement as Minister is that for some of the biggest proposals he allowed teachers to feel part of the development process.  That’s a lesson any Education Minister will be wise to learn.



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