Leighton Andrews and the WJEC Fiasco

By Matt Kilcoyne

Since devolution began in 1999 England and Wales have been drifting apart on Education. For example in England sixth forms are still encouraged whilst in Wales colleges have been championed, free schools and academies just don’t have Cambrian equivalents and the curriculum has differed so much that what students learn (in some cases a mere hop across a bridge) in schools separated by a legal border bear no resemblance to one another. Finally, after thirteen years, the two parties and their respective ministers are at loggerheads and the issue of the UK’s ‘post-code lottery’ has come to the fore after Leighton Andrews asked exam board the WJEC to regrade English Language papers if they were sat in Wales.

Leighton Andrews has been in the post as Welsh Education Minister for over 1000 days now and his record is far from glorious. Under his leadership and his party’s control of Wales (Labour has, either alone or in coalition with Plaid Cymru, been in power in Wales since Devolution began) the educational standards have been falling and falling further behind England even whilst pass rates have risen for the past thirty years though the sharper than UK average of the top grades are starting to reflect the poor PISA standards that Wales has collected over the past decade.

Now he has an opportunity to regain the political advantage he has lost with this poor record and is seeking it by adopting the populist position of siding with pupils that have lost out after an exam board cut its grade boundaries and thus the results of thousands of students. The board in question, the WJEC (formerly known as the Welsh Joint Education Committee), has come under intense criticism over the past year for being the worst culprit of grade inflation and advertising themselves as easier than their competitors in the exam market. By demanding a regrade of papers sat in Wales he is using his power of oversight over the exam system in the principality to political effect and, whilst it may mean a number of pupils receive a C grade rather than a D grade and so automatically gain access to colleges and apprenticeships that were under threat, it may have ramifications far beyond his foresight.

His announcement of a regrade from the off, rather than an inquiry or investigation highlights a quirk of devolution that is somewhat unpalatable. Namely, that the Welsh government is the exam regulator in Wales whilst our English counterparts have an independent officiator in Ofqual which, after a review, concluded no such regrade was needed. In other words, the minister who has a political (and thus his career) stake in getting marks upwardly changed actually has the direct ability (with no scrutiny or ability of recall) to demand it on a populist whim. The fact that he has now done this may mean that such a power will be fought against in future and a bizarre difference between England and Wales may lose the minister some devolved powers.

In addition to his own powers being under threat, Leighton Andrews may have inadvertently damned the WJECs future prospects. Parents, schools and employers the length and breadth of England and Wales (the WJEC exams are sat across the two countries) now know that the board has a poor record and questionable results. The consequence, as Gove himself pointed out to a committee of MPs, could mean that ‘in the future English employers could decide that a Welsh exam pass is not the equivalent of a similar pass in England’.

Welsh students may win the short battle but, with the country now aware that political interference is a possibility and reality in modern Wales, they may well lose the war as employers, universities and colleges look down on future results. The answer is to expand independent oversight of exams and to ensure its sovereignty on the issue across England and Wales, to remove politicians from pupils’ results all together and, most importantly, to reform our school and exam system so that it accurately reflects our standards going forward.

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