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Bill finds welcome in the hillsides

The new Government has realised that Wales is a different place from England. + This was a matter for rejoicing at last week's annual conference of the Welsh + branch of the Society of Education Officers. It was held in Llandrindod Wells, + in the Welsh heartland of Powys, on a dark and rainy day when the hills could + hardly be seen. But there was no suppressing the sense of optimism and purpose + among the 30 education officers gathered to discuss raising standards with + their partners in the education service. Even the title of the White Paper, + Building Excellent Schools Together, the document they had met to discuss, the+ first ever devoted to education in Wales, lends itself to a positive acronym. + As Neil Harries, director of education of Caerphilly council and SEO chairman + in Wales, said: "The White Paper in Wales has been more welcomed by my + colleagues than the White Paper in England. It's got a different steer, + different perspectives."There was the news from Elizabeth Taylor, a senior + Welsh Office official, that some parts of the new Education Bill, such as the + creation of education action zones, may be delayed in Wales until the new Welsh+ Assembly is up and running and can make its own decisions on education. A + 14-person committee, the Education and Training Action Group, is busy drawing + up a template for Welsh education in the new era.(The conference took place + just the day after the Government of Wales Bill was published. But, as Mrs + Taylor remarked, its appearance had been eclipsed by the Government's Bill to + introduce tuition fees for students.)And more money is on the way. After + several lean years, an extra #163;50 million for Welsh schools should mean + that individual school budgets will rise next year, Mrs Taylor said.There seems+ to be a more collaborative spirit in the principality which is not just the + result of smallness of scale. Only 17 out of 1,900 primary and secondary + schools have opted out, and some may well return to the local authority fold - + so there is less bitterness between neighbouring schools and between schools + and local authorities than in many parts of England. Except in a few areas, + parents of all social classes send their children to the local school.Bill + Bailey, head of Denbigh High School and the next president of the Secondary + Heads Association in Wales, expressed his reliance on his local authority. His + school had experienced the death of a student, a fire in the technology + department, the collapse of the sports hall roof and a flood last June. He + said: "What would I have done if it had been a GM school?" he asked. "Reach for+ the Yellow Pages? I don't know. " Welsh local education authorities may have + confidence in their role but life has not been easy for them in the past year + or two. In 1996, Welsh local government had wholesale reorganisation imposed + upon it, increasing the number of Welsh authorities from eight to 22 at a time + of sharp reductions in funding. Some of the new-born authorities could provide + only skeleton services.But last week there seemed to be little of the hostility+ towards other partners in the education service that sometimes characterises + education gatherings east of Offa's Dyke. The education officers gave a + relatively friendly reception, for instance,to Susan Lewis, chief inspector of + schools in Wales. A distinctly low-key figure by comparison with her + counterpart Chris Woodhead, she stressed the need for her inspectors to avoid + duplicating the efforts of authorities in raising standards in schools.But she + was opposed to a suggestion from Richard Parry Jones, director of education of + Anglesey, that the second round of inspections of Welsh schools, due to start + next year, should target inspections on the worst-performing schools, leaving + authorities to validate self-review by the remaining schools. All schools + should be inspected by her office as a form of external audit and to give a + balanced picture of the system as a whole, she said.Education officers' concern+ about the variable standard of inspections emerged clearly during the session.+ Miss Lewis said any complaints about the performance of registered inspectors + were taken very seriously, adding: "I have to say I don't get that many + complaints.""We do," chorused her audience, making it clear that inconsistency+ of judgments was the real problem.Brian Mawby, Blaenau Gwent education + director, asked why the Government continued with the system of contract + inspectors rather than building up the number of HMIs centrally. Miss Lewis + replied that she was not going to argue against that.The conference was brought+ to a close by the charismati c Jeff Jones, leader of Bridgend council and + education spokesman of the Welsh Local Government Association. Mr Jones was + full of optimism. "Too often," he said, "what happens in Wales has been what + happens in England with a few sentences changed. That's going to be + different."Members of the Welsh Assembly will live in your areas and go to your+ schools," he reminded his audience. "It's a great opportunity to ensure that + education gets its fair share of the cake." Wales would attract business + because of its "bright, well-educated kids," he declared, adding: "We'll take + the rest of the UK to the cleaners."

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