Leighton Andrews deserves respect for reacting quickly to the consequences of this year’s routine shifting of the GCSE grading goalposts. Damage limitation is a skill too few of us possess, and depressingly scarce in our public life. As a past sufferer from exams (they always terrify and confuse me), as a parent, and as the son of a dedicated teacher, I sympathize with everybody concerned. I also sympathize not a little with the markers and with the administrators. In the event, Leighton did what he could and should have in a dignified manner, without throwing the kind of tantrum we have come to expect from some of his colleagues.
Nevertheless, there was now need for any of this to happen in the first place. This débacle was entirely predictable. Under the present form of the devolution settlement, it was in fact inevitable. Given the speed and aggression with which the ConDem coalition is dismantling what remains of the post-1945 settlement, it is plain that such conflicts will arise again – and again, and again. What lessons can we draw from the brouhaha over GCSE gradings?
Two points stand out. First of all, the parameters of the devolution settlement are far from clear. Secondly, even if they were, the ConDem Coalition would see no need to observe them.
Dafydd El touched on an interesting aspect of this when he characterized Gove’s gratuitous attack on our examination system as constitutionally improper. In the USA, when one says ‘X is unconstitutional’, one means ‘This is unlawful, and I am going to get a court order to stop it’. Under the British system, it means ‘This is wrong, but there is nothing I can do about it.’
The last Secretary of State was rightly criticized for not knowing who the Head of Government was when she took up office. (This particular piece of ignorance is, after all, the prerogative of the surly teenager.) However, David Jones’ barrage of ‘looking-forward-to-working-with-you messages is disturbing. Either he does not know that the matters with which the receiving organizations deal are devolved, or he does know but does not care. Either way, here is prima facie evidence that he intends to behave as if devolution had never happened.
Further to this, we need to remind ourselves that the present state of the Welsh constitution is as Labour bequeathed it to us while they were in power at Westminster. The usual suspects in the Jurassic Tendency devoted time and effort to making sure that the new organs of Welsh government, especially their representative elements, would in practice be deprived of many of the powers they needed to operate effectively. Where the ConDems are jumping up and down in alarm at every slightest word from north of the tweed, they behave here as if nothing has changed. And we need to ask ourselves, seriously and searchingly,to what extent devolution has happened at all?