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Building bridges

First they had to merge two culturally distinct districts, then this largely rural area had to cope with an influx of families from English cities. Biddy Passmore reports

If the Prime Minister wants proof that local education authorities can be a Good Thing, he could do worse than visit the central north coast of Wales.

If that is too far to go, he could simply read this extract from the inspectors' report on Conwy's school improvement service, published just over two years ago.

"Officers have developed very good relationships with schools," it says.

"This is a considerable achievement, particularly in view of the diversity of schools that the authority inherited in 1996.

"Schools have a high level of trust in the authority. As a result, the authority is able to challenge them rigorously about aspects of their performance... The school- perception survey shows that schools have very high levels of satisfaction with the LEA's services when compared with other authorities in both England and Wales."

The service, concluded Estyn, was "excellent", with promising prospects of further improvement. And the inspectors said the same about Conwy's provision for special educational needs, just over a year later.

Little wonder that this small authority, created in 1996 from the unloved tail-ends of two others, should be celebrating its tenth anniversary with quiet satisfaction.

The task that councillors and officers faced seemed almost impossible: to create an authority blending two completely different political and linguistic cultures, covering both the seaside development centred on Llandudno and Colwyn Bay, with its urban challenges of transience and deprivation, to the beautiful but poor rural hinterland of the Conwy Valley and Snowdonia.

To the East, there was the former Labour-dominated county of Clwyd, English-speaking and low-spending, where years of neglect had driven three secondary schools into the grant-maintained sector - nearly half the number that opted out in the whole of Wales.

To the West, there was rural, Welsh-speaking Gwynedd, with a strong tradition of community and political independence.

"The Gwynedd side felt it was an English takeover and the Clwyd side felt it was a Welsh takeover," is how director of education Emlyn Williams sums it up, adding with a touch of understatement: "Relationships needed to be developed."

Mr Williams has the right credentials to allay the suspicions of both sides. A Welsh-speaker from the Conwy Valley, he taught "as a Welsh missionary" in London and north-west England before returning to Wales as assistant director in Clwyd.

But he makes clear the authority's approach to its formerly neglected schools is characterised by critical friendship rather than touchy-feely therapy.

"We took the line we would work in a challenging, professional way with schools," says Mr Williams, "and the schools have relished it. After an initial bedding-in period, we've got on very well."

"The previous LEAs were like benevolent uncles," he continues. "It was all a bit too cosy. But we wanted them to improve."

As well as its mixed heritage, the authority has daunting social problems to contend with. Much of the population is elderly and wage levels are the lowest in Great Britain. Many families from the estates of Manchester and Liverpool settle for a while in Conwy's coastal caravan belt and in the large Victorian and Edwardian houses along the front that are easily subdivided for multiple occupancy. The area is popular with councils seeking to resettle looked-after children. In some areas, the proportion of unemployed and single-parent families is high, and drug use is widespread.

The authority's main priorities have been improving school buildings, promoting bilingualism and increasing staff and services for special educational needs, especially in former Gwynedd.

Conwy went for a pound;50 million public finance initiative scheme to build four completely new schools: three secondaries, one primary. In the past ten years, about three-quarters of the authority's 71 schools have had major refurbishment.

Spending has gradually improved from one of the lowest levels in Wales in 1996. Spending per secondary pupil is now about average and spending per primary pupil and on special needs is well above average.

But when Conwy asked secondary heads what it was they most urgently needed, they replied with one voice that their top priority was support for pupils with special educational needs.

Today, the authority has four pupil-referral units (there were no PRUs ten years ago), covering all key stages, as well as four "resource centres" for social inclusion in secondary schools - which are not separate buildings or classrooms but simply resources that can be flexibly used throughout the school. The home tuition service is classed as another PRU, and there is alsoa unit for a dozen young people with more severe problems, such as self-harmers.

Throughout the social inclusion service, even where the units are in physically separate buildings or classrooms, the emphasis is on working within the mainstream. Indeed, the early years unit is housed in a large classroom within the mainstream primary of Fford Dyffrin. Children in the unit play and share some sessions with children from the primary school, and some even choose to wear the school's sweatshirt so that they blend in more easily. Pupils have dual registration and are reintegrated into their own school as soon as possible, usually within 12 weeks.

Karin Owen, the bright and forceful teacher in the early years unit, spends a fair bit of her time out in primary schools, observing and helping staff deal with challenging pupils. Assertive discipline is promoted throughout the authority.

"All our PRUs are there to work with schools," says Andrew Wilson, Conwy's senior special needs officer. Outreach, advice and training are an important part of each unit's activity.

"Rather than taking pupils out of schools, we're putting expertise into schools to deal with them," he adds.

However successfully they work, there are always more pupils coming into Conwy's school system who need help.

Transience poses the biggest problems. For instance, one in six of the pupils in the top year of primary school in 2000 had left the area by 2003; conversely, nearly one in five of the pupils in the third year of secondary school in 2003 had not been in Conwy schools three years earlier.

One third of all pupils in the authority's primary PRUs and the special school (Y Gogarth) have moved into the county in the last three years. At secondary level, the figure is nearly half.

The cornerstone of Conwy' s social inclusion strategy service is a centrally managed force of nearly 200 teaching assistants. Mostly NVQ-trained, they work in schools with individual pupils or groups of pupils where there is an identified need - but also help teachers address pupils' needs, whether they are behavioural, physical or in speech and language.

Conwy also provides help in its PRUs for phobics and school refusers, and sometimes uses time in a unit to ease transition between secondary schools.

"The strength of this LEA is the partnership between heads and teachers and governors," says Emlyn Williams. "And everybody puts in a lot of work outside school hours, whether on cultural activities or sport or social inclusion."

Nobody could accuse Conwy of municipal grandeur. The educational offices in Colwyn Bay are housed in a former hospital, a series of single-storey red-brick buildings strung out along corridors - functional but hardly glamorous, and rented from the National Assembly.

Does the authority have plans for an airy new building? "This is fine for us," replies Mr Williams firmly. "It's kids who need glossy schools."

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