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Land of the education fathers

As change comes to Wales, its Society of Education Officers

wonders how to handle the assembly, social inclusion and the end of macho management. Biddy Passmore reports on its conference.

MANAGING change may sound like just another irritating bit of management jargon. But it is an essential skill for anybody working as an education officer in Wales.

The creation of the Welsh Assembly in May is the latest and most far-reaching of the changes that have kept the Welsh education service in a state of flux for some years.

In 1996, the eight local education authorities were reorganised, willy-nilly, into 22 unitary authorities. Since then, 15 of the new authorities have started to modernise their structure, replacing traditional committees with cabinet government. Now, the new Welsh Assembly is likely to introduce an early shake-up in the funding and organisation of all post-16 education and training, with a national council distributing money not through the 22 LEAs but through a smaller number of local consortia. And that, in turn, could lead to further local government reorganisation.

All this - and variants on the development plans, performance indicators and funding regime that their English counterparts have to suffer - with the issues of the Green Paper and social inclusion looming large. No wonder the theme of this year's conference of the Welsh section of the Society of Education Officers was "The governance of education in Wales". As chairman Richard Parry Jones, director of education for Anglesey, asked: "How do we deliver this awesome agenda? Where is the power and the accountability?"

Central government had come closer, he told the conference in Llandrindod Wells. This gave LEAs more opportunity to influence policy-making - but also produced more possibilities for central direction and conflict.

As Christine Whatford, the SEO president from the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, pointed out, Welsh LEAs start with some advantages as they try to define their role.

They already have much closer relations with the inspectorate and with central officials (several chief education officers at the conference expressed horror at the plight of their English fellows, being inspected by a chief inspector who questioned their very right to exist); there are no failing authorities and very few failing schools; only a handful of schools opted for grant-maintained status; there are virtually no private companies wanting to take over education services and selection is not an issue. "The culture of LEA-bashing does not seem to prevail here to the same extent," she said.

Everyone agreed that education officers should make themselves as professionally competent as possible, seizing the training opportunities offered by local government's new "virtual staff college".

And the role for which they were training themselves? It seemed to be based on that trusty old idea of "partnership": with schools, where they were advised to be "critical friends" rather than "macho managers"; with elected members where the emergence of corporate government is blurring the distinction between officers and councillors, with other LEAs, where they already have to join forces to provide some advisory services and with the new assembly.

An early test of such partnership will come from proposals drawn up by the Education and Training Action Group for the assembly, which envisage the creation of a national council for education and training responsible for all post-16 provision.

Cynog Dafis, the Plaid Cymru chairman of the assembly's 16-plus committee, which is now drawing up detailed plans, said it had already decided to bring together the further education and training budgets but was still considering whether to take charge of the sixth-form budget. One possibility, he said, would be to use the common funding formula to work out how much LEAs should get for their sixth forms.

Perhaps 15 or 16 local consortia would draw up education and training plans for their area. He delighted his audience by making it clear that the former training and enterprise councils would play no part in the distribution of funds at regional level.

Jeff Jones, leader of Bridgend council, called on officers to move away from the defensive attitudes arising from the bad old days of the free-spending counties, when many thought success was based on "being nice to politicians". Welsh authorities could pride themselves on how smoothly they had managed reorganisation and now had a chance to be innovative, he said. They were needed to give advice to the Welsh Assembly, which had only "one man and a dog" as a civil service.

Actually, the former Welsh Office official who now heads the Assembly's schools administration division is a woman, the wonderfully-named and highly-regarded Elizabeth Taylor. The chief inspector is also a woman, Susan Lewis. But, as Christine Whatford noted on entering the Welsh officers' gathering, educational administration in Wales is heavily male-dominated: none of the 22 authorities has a female CEO. So there is one further change that could be managed.

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