Nick Clegg has been attacked by academics and politicians alike for meddling in Welsh affairs following an outspoken attack on the government in Cardiff Bay over the decision of education minister, Leighton Andrews, to order a remarking of English language GCSE papers taken in Wales over the summer.
Speaking on the eve of his conference speech today, the deputy prime minister - who secured in the recent reshuffle the appointment of Lib Dem Peer Baroness Randerson as a Wales Office minister with a specific remit to focus on Education, despite it being a devolved policy area - told the Daily Post in Wales:
“I would… say that I would think the Labour Party in the Assembly is displaying all the hallmarks of shortsighted political interference in the school system to what I fear will be the long-term detriment of schoolchildren in Wales.”
Urging ministers in Cardiff to seriously consider the exam reforms announced by both himself and Michael Gove last week, Clegg continued:
“Over time I hope sensible people in the Welsh administration will also see that what we are trying to do in England, through the measures that myself and Michael Gove have announced, is raise standards, because that’s what parents want, but do so in a way that doesn’t leave any children behind.
“Instead they seem to have gone for short-term headlines and finger pointing, which is a normal response of Labour in Cardiff - blame everything on London, never take responsibility for your own affairs – and meddle with the exam system which I don’t think should be meddled with on a sort of case-by-case basis like that by politicians.”
His remarks, however, have been met with a wall of hostility, with the Western Mail today carrying criticisms from academics and political opponents.
Laura McAllister, professor of governance at the University of Liverpool, defended Mr Andrews ,stating:
“It’s right and proper he takes responsibility for policies that come from his department. I don’t think you can challenge him on that - he’s doing what he’s allowed to do and entitled to do.”
She went on to argue Andrews had “every right to intervene” to protect exam standards if he thought these had been “affected adversely”. The consensus on education had been broken, she argued, “not by Wales and Northern Ireland but by England on this issue”.
As a result, McAllister said there was “no reason at all” to think the reputation of Welsh exams would be damaged by the divergence with England, and said it was an “inevitable consequence of devolution” that areas such as education were the responsibility of the Welsh government.
Constitutional expert Alan Trench, meanwhile, went on to argue the UK government had failed to keep track of the situation in Wales.
“It says more about the lack of attention that’s been given to developments in Wales and their implications that suddenly this has blown up in the way this has.”
Accusing politicians of all parties and persuasions both in Whitehall and Cardiff of playing the “politics of the playground”, Simon Thomas, Plaid Cymru’s education spokesman at the Assembly, observed:
“As a father of a child going through the GCSEs experience I feel that all politicians in Cardiff Bay and in London have not covered themselves in glory. They are playing the politics of the playground rather than take a balanced approach on the way forward for qualifications in Wales and England.”
Responding to Lib Dem leader’s remarks, a spokesman for the Welsh government argued it was an attempt by Nick Clegg to divert attention from his record on the economy, saying:
“Nick Clegg has developed a fixation about Welsh government policy. He clearly feels the need to carp on about one thing or another on almost a weekly basis, in order to grab a cheap headline. Of course, all this is a smokescreen.
“He would much prefer to talk about anything else than the abject failure of his party and his Government to stimulate growth and jobs in the UK economy.
“Unfortunately for Nick Clegg - as recent election results demonstrate - the people of Wales are not fooled by his antics.”
The developments come as Leighton Andrews, using his first opportunity to address the Senedd since the exams fiasco, argued the government in Cardiff had acted swiftly to tackle the “injustice” caused to students.
He told AMs yesterday:
“We have acted swiftly and decisively to address an injustice for GCSE English language candidates. The Welsh regulatory system has worked. We will now look forward to the forthcoming review of qualifications to determine the future of 14-19 qualifications in Wales.”