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Late developer

He's the ideal person to steer an authority through high unemployment, falling rolls and pupil disaffection because he was disenchanted with education himself. David Hopkins talks to Anne Horner

David Hopkins is not a good advert for staying on at school. He left his grammar at 16 and did not take studying seriously until he was in his thirties. Now he finds himself at the helm of Caerphilly's education and leisure department and is the acting chair of the Association of Directors of Education in Wales, a group which represents the 22 Welsh authorities.

He is a man who has succeeded in spite of school. Perhaps this very fact makes him the ideal person to be director of education in a borough where just half the youngsters stay on post-16. He is a modest, unassuming man who was reluctant to be interviewed for this profile - he stresses that the achievements of his authority are down to teamwork, although he is not afraid to take the rap as the boss. He is doubtless squirming as he reads this article and sees his picture across eight columns.

But this down-to-earth man, who has first-hand experience of unemployment and disaffection with schools, can relate to the youngsters his authority needs to engage. Here, only 59 per cent of men work full-time and 28 per cent of women. Caerphilly has 36 wards, 26 of which are among the 40 per cent most deprived in Wales. It is a place of low aspirations and high exclusions.

He lives in Hafodyrynys, a village in a hilly area near Risca, where he was born. He attended Pontywaun grammar school, but has little time for that system. "Grammar schools did not bring the best out of many pupils who went there," he says. "They were quite divisive - a lot of friends go to secondary modern schools.

"I do not think that they helped greatly when you think of the quality of the pupils going there. They should have produced pupils with a much greater range of qualifications than they did."

He came to Caerphilly to work when it was created as a unitary authority in 1996. He was appointed head of professional services, a department now known as school effectiveness, and became director of education four years later in 2000.

When asked about his own school history he is disarmingly frank: "I liked French until it got too hard. I enjoyed the humanities and geography. I liked English but had great difficulty with maths. Figures are not my strong point and now I am in charge of a budget of pound;127 million."

As he utters these words I have to pinch myself. I cannot believe that they have come from the mouth of a director of education . I wait for him to add "don't quote me on that", but he never does.

Hopkins, whose father worked as a crane driver, was the eldest of five children. After leaving school he was unemployed for about six months because of a health problem. At 18 he started working in local government.

"If you disclosed that you had a health problem it was difficult to secure employment," he says. "Your self-esteem goes if you cannot get back into work."

After coasting for a while, his attitude changed following a frank talk with his wife: "I did not get into serious study until I was 30-odd. That was because my wife said to me a lot of people end up bitter and twisted.

Either you are going to do something or you are not. My wife encouraged me to do something and here we are. She has been extremely supportive."

He took a certificate in municipal administration and a masters degree in human resources management at the University of Glamorgan.

His early experiences of disengagement with education will stand him in good stead as he steers the authority through curriculum reforms aimed at tackling disaffection.

"We need to help multi-disciplinary teams work with children before they really have problems and are excluded. It is all about getting the curriculum right for those youngsters.

"Expectations have been low, and that's partly because of high unemployment. Pupils wonder: 'What's going to be different for me?' You have to offer a range of skills to pupils that they feel are useful to them.

"We know we have got problems in this borough with exclusions and attendance. We need to have the support in place locally so we can intervene before youngsters are ditched from the system."

There is a long way to go before the public recognises the need for post-16 reform. Proposals for a more vocational system are not popular locally.

He explains: "They (the people of Caerphilly) are highly resistant to change. We are trying to broaden opportunities and offer different courses with more choice. That sort of message makes schools feel under threat. We are trying to engender real debate round these issues in Caerphilly."

Exam reform is not the only upheaval local secondaries face. One comprehensive - Bedwellty - is to close this year and more will follow if the authority is to cut surplus places.

"We recognise the fact that we simply have too many places," he says, "particularly with falling rolls kicking in. We have had one stab at it and have closed one secondary. We need to close at least two more."

Consultations about closures will be carried out during the autumn and should be implemented in September 2007. He acknowledges that talk of closures has a destabilising effect on schools but insists "we have to revisit the issue".

Reflecting on the tasks ahead, he says that the borough has deep-rooted, long-term problems and accepts "we are not just going to solve them overnight".

Hopkins is a keen walker who likes to wander in the hills. "I like walking as a way of relaxing," he says. He's going to have plenty of difficult decisions to mull over as he takes a reflective stroll during the next year.

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