Class politics: the decline of Welsh schools

25 Feb 13

The Welsh government appears complacent as school performance continues to deteriorate. Ministers need to think radically and should start by introducing some competition into the education system

Am I the only person who sees the image of a drowning man in Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews?

Obviously he has a hugely difficult task on his hands in turning round the Welsh schools system. In my Public Finance article (April 2012), Bottom of the Class, I drew attention to the parlous state of Welsh schooling. It seems to me that since that time the situation has probably got worse, not better.

Let’s get real about this – schools improvement is absolutely critical for the future of Wales. But let’s remember a number of facts:

  • Wales has a smaller population than any other part of the UK, saving the North East Region of England and Northern Ireland
  • The Welsh economy is the least productive in the UK. In terms of gross value added per head of population, Wales is at the bottom of the UK league table
  • The Welsh economy cannot exist in isolation, but is inextricably linked to the rest of the UK economy, the European economy and the global economy
  • If Wales is to compete in economic terms, our children must have educational attainment comparable to the rest of the UK and other countries in the world

In terms of school performance, let’s look at the situation of Wales within the UK. The one key benchmark of school performance that is probably of most interest to parents is the percentage of children who obtain grades A-C in their GCSE examinations. What we see here is a picture of increasing pass rates in both Wales and the rest of the UK over a period of years. However, there is a sharp reversal in pass rates in 2012, with Wales showing a drop of 1.1% compared to a fall of 0.4% in the rest of the UK.

The net effect of all this is that the pass rates in Wales still remains a full four percentage points below the rest of the UK and the gap has widened. Andrews was quoted as describing this result as ‘encouraging’. How complacent can you get?

The Welsh Government provides a comprehensive range of information on all Welsh schools but while this information is interesting, it misses the point. There is little point just comparing an individual Welsh school against other schools in the locality and throughout Wales. What we need is information that compares Welsh school performance with the rest of the UK (and perhaps the rest of the world) so we can see where we stand in the modern world. At the moment we do not stand very well.

Currently in Wales, we have three of our 22 local authorities in special measures for education (Anglesey, Blaenau Gwent and Pembrokeshire) with two others (Merthyr Tydfil and Monmouthshire) set to join them. Thus, almost a quarter of Welsh local education authorities are in special measures.

To this we can add a number of individual schools in special measures plus another few local authorities that came pretty close to being placed in this situation (and probably would have been if there hadn’t already been an unacceptable number). Now the minister is threatening to use his powers to close, 12 months earlier than planned, Llanrumney High School in Cardiff, which is already in special measures. Is all this time, cost, disruption and political capital really worth the candle for 12 months – assuming the plan is actually feasible? It sounds more like desperation to me.

So what is to be done? Well, until ministers realise that they won’t get the sort of change they want by issuing threats and edicts from on high then we won’t make any progress. All the circulars, laws, inspections, advice, commissioners etc won’t get anywhere until we get back to basics and consider what are the factors that inhibit improvements in the Welsh schooling system (and conversely those factors that will facilitate improvements). Then we have to make changes to the education system to remove those barriers and effect change for improvement.

A significant barrier to improvement must be overcoming what is termed ‘provider self-interest’. The famous economist, Adam Smith, writing in the 18th century said:

‘The interest of the dealers in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public. To narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers. To widen the market may frequently be agreeable enough to the interest of the public; but to narrow the competition must always be against it.’

Smith is often described as a ‘right wing’ economist but that is a caricature he, himself, would never have recognised. He was a professor of moral philosophy who recognised the negative impacts on ordinary people of unfettered capitalism and the impact of monopolistic suppliers (including those in the public sector) on the public good. His views about the dangers of monopoly suppliers would have been shared by Marx and many other political scientists.

In many parts of the public sector (including schools) I suggest most of the reforms being proposed in Wales will be stifled by the negative responses of those working in the schools sector, namely the teaching professions and trade unions. Now while it is understandable that these organisations wish to look after the interests of their members, it is not necessary for the general public or the political classes to accept or support their views.

I suggest that if we really want to improve the schools system in Wales we have to introduce some degree of provider competition in order to shake up the existing monopolistic arrangements. Let’s face it, for most of us who are unwilling or unable to send our children to private schools, the schools system is a monopoly. We have a choice of schools run by our home local authority or home schooling. We have some freedom to choose individual schools, but that is often severely constrained.

Why not permit other organisations (e.g. private, voluntary or faith-based) to bid for local authority funding to establish and run their own schools, thereby breaking down the usual approach of local authorities using schools funding solely for the purposes of running their own schools? Such a move could improve the choices available to parents and provide the catalyst to break down monopolistic self-interest and raise standards. Endless objections will be raised to such a proposal but many of them will be found to arise from existing provider self-interest.

While some in the Labour Party may prefer a monopolistic provision of public services by the state on ideological grounds, this is not an underlying principle of Labour Party socialism in the UK. Many Labour Party members believe strongly that competition in public services is a good thing provided it is regulated. Two well-known examples are Alan Milburn (former Labour Cabinet Minister and one-time Trotskyist) and the academic economist (and former Labour Government adviser) Professor Julian Le Grand.

If Welsh ministers just sit on their hands and don’t make the sort of radical changes needed, I suspect that in three years’ time we will still be bemoaning the Welsh schools system, which may have got even worse. In a time of financial austerity (which isn’t going to go away) the only way we are going to get significant improvement in Welsh Schooling is by radical change.

Isn’t it time the Welsh Government forgot about headline catching things like new law making powers or taking over responsibility for policing services in Wales and concentrated on bread and butter issues like delivering substantial improvements on what is perhaps the most important public service of all and the one that has the greatest impact on the future of Wales?

  • Malcolm Prowle
    Malcolm Prowle

    Malcolm Prowle is professor of performance management at University of Gloucestershire. He is formerly professor of business performance at Nottingham Business School and a visiting research professor at the Open University Business School. Malcolm is an expert on the economics, finance and management of public services. He has advised ministers, senior civil servants and public service managers on a wide range of public policy and implementation issues.

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