After nearly half a century at the heart of Welsh education, Mike Howells, cricket fan and field officer for ASCL Cymru, contemplates a few post-retirement tests. Darren Evans reports
He is a legend in education. From teacher, head, school governor and union official, Mike Howells, the outgoing field officer for heads' union the ASCL Cymru, has seen and done it all.
But despite his 45 years' service, he still thinks children are "wonderful", teachers do a "tremendous job" and heads are "terrific".
He still has the same passion as he had as a newly qualified teacher back in 1963. Perhaps that is why, aged 70, he says he will find it hard to walk away.
Mr Howells officially retires this week. He bids farewell to his colleagues and friends at the ASCL Cymru's annual conference in Llandrindod Wells tomorrow.
He has retired before. He bowed out in 1998 after a career including two headships. But his retirement proved short-lived. The Secondary Heads Association, later to become the ASCL Cymru, approached Mr Howells and asked him to monitor committees and debates in the new National Assembly for Wales following Welsh devolution.
Mr Howells accepted the job, but on condition he would be allowed time off to attend cricket test matches - a luxury he did not have as a headteacher.
He was later to become one of the union's field officers for Wales, and for the past decade has helped heads in Wales with employment and disciplinary issues, a role he says has been the most rewarding and satisfying of his career.
But Mr Howells concedes he will not be severing all ties. "I probably will continue in some form of consultancy, but it will be on my terms," he said. "There are some who still want to use my experience."
As one of the most well-known and respected figures in education in Wales, he may find his services are still in demand.
He began teaching in 1963, taking over as head of Archbishop Mostyn RC School in Cardiff in 1980 before becoming head of Cardiff's Mary Immaculate RC High from 1987 until his first "retirement" in 1998.
In his near decade as a union field officer, he has dealt with more than 300 cases and visited some 80 schools.
He also has experience of the primary sector as chairman of St Phillip Evans RC Primary in Cardiff, and the FE sector, having been clerk to the governors of St Davids RC College in the capital since 1999 and a governor of Barry College for 20 years.
Mr Howells has seen great changes, particularly in school leadership. "When I started, a headteacher's job was to see the curriculum delivered," he said. "Now they have myriad other tasks. It's become a business.
"I have the utmost respect for my senior colleagues, and I think they do a tremendous job under increasing pressure."
He has also seen "enormous and astonishing strides" in technology - from teachers using blackboards, chalk and textbooks to the latest digital teaching aids.
"The opportunities for children these days are vastly improved - whereas we only had libraries with books, you now have resource centres," he said.
And far from seeing a drop in standards, he believes all aspects of school life have improved.
"I think teachers are far better trained today," he said. "The newly qualified teachers are far better prepared than we were. They cover all aspects of the training. I don't think schools get enough credit for the wonderful things they do. I have total admiration for the work schools are doing for children."
One of Mr Howells' big concerns is the mounting red tape and regulation involved in headship, and the difficulty many have in maintaining a work- life balance.
"There's been more regulation in education than in any other form of business or employment," he said. "I am confident that many of my members are now working more than 70 hours a week. The responsibility of headship has its lonely moments - you really carry the can as the employer and the employee.
"They should cut the bureaucracy and trust the professionalism of headteachers - they are good people."
While he supports the Assembly government's education agenda - particularly the focus on community-focused schools - Mr Howells is concerned about where the cash will be found to fund it.
"It's quite clear that there was a funding fog 10 years ago, and it's still there," he said.
No doubt his family will keep him busy in his retirement. He and his wife Dot have two daughters, a son and eight grandchildren. But he can also devote more of his time to his other great passion: cricket.
He is an avid follower of the Glamorgan and England teams, and a former captain of Wenvoe's village cricket team. Since 1998, he has travelled the world following the England team, including trips to Australia and the West Indies. And he has no plans to stop.
And, like a batsman leaving the field of play after a long match, Mr Howells will bow out from education with some sadness, but knowing he has had a fine innings.
"I think I probably will miss it, but you have got to make a decision," he said. "I've done 45 years' service and I've enjoyed almost every minute of it."
Stephen Parry, incoming field officer and retiring head of Tonypandy Community College, knows he has big shoes to fill.
He said: "Mike has done a fantastic job. He has been around a long time and has good relationships with headteachers and school leaders. Education is going through a major change, and there will be some very interesting issues coming up."
Officers in the field
The Association of Schools and College Leaders Cymru has 14 field officers across the UK. It is their job to support the union's 14,000 members in a variety of situations, including grievances and disputes with staff, terms of employment, governance procedures, disciplinary issues, redundancies, health and safety, allegations of abuse, stress and harassment, illness, early retirement, and pensions.
WHAT CHANGED DURING MIKE'S INNINGS
1963: The Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) is introduced for teaching across England and Wales to complement O-levels.
1965: Large expansion of comprehensive school system starts across England and Wales.
1968: About 20 per cent of children are in comprehensive schools.
1980: The Education Act allows parents greater choice of schools their children can attend.
1986: GCSEs introduced across England and Wales.
1988: National curriculum launched across England and Wales.
1990: Welsh becomes a compulsory subject for all pupils in Wales up to the age of 14.
1998: The Government of Wales Act creates the National Assembly for Wales, with the Welsh Assembly government created in 1999 to take control of education policy, but not pay and conditions.
1999: Welsh becomes compulsory at key stage 4.
2000: National Assembly takes over responsibility for key stage tests.
2001: Secondary school league tables scrapped in Wales.
2002: Key stage 1 tests abolished.
2003: Welsh Baccalaureate qualification pilot scheme launched.
2004: Phased abolition of key stage 2 and 3 tests announced.
Play-led foundation phase pilot scheme introduced in 41 schools across Wales.
2008: Key stage testing ends.