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The road to the top

He has conquered the Atlas and Black mountains and the cols of the Tour de France. Now Mike de Val, director of education, tells Biddy Passmore about his challenge to raise aspirations in Torfaen

Mike de Val is anything but Welsh, but he now considers Wales as his home.

Born in France, the son of an Irish mother and an Anglo-French father, he spent his childhood roaming the world and its schools.

"We were a Forces family," he says. "I attended eight different schools, including boarding schools, from North Africa to Singapore, to different parts of England. The longest stretch was two years at Chichester and West Sussex high school for boys."

So he thinks himself fortunate, now, to be settled in Nantyderry, a small village near Abergavenny on the edge of the Black Mountains. He enjoys both the natural beauty of Wales and its strong sense of community. Most of his roaming these days is done on a mountain bike.

A fluent speaker of French and Spanish (but with only "tourist Welsh"), he studied French and English at Southampton university before teaching as a volunteer in the mountains of eastern Algeria. Two years in industry followed before he succumbed again to the lure of teaching, taking his postgraduate certificate at Durham and teaching in comprehensives in Hertfordshire and Cornwall.

He entered educational administration in Leicestershire in 1983, then moved to Gloucestershire before crossing Offa's Dyke in 1990 to take up a post - on St David's Day, naturally - as assistant director for schools with West Glamorgan. He won the post of director of education at Torfaen when it was carved out of the old Gwent county council in 1996.

He faced a task that he admits was "challenging". As well as the common problems of the Welsh valleys - the withdrawal of mining and heavy industry leaving a population with low skills, poor health and low aspirations - there was the unique challenge posed by Cwmbran, an ageing "new town".

Not to mention lack of money. "We inherited from Gwent quite low levels of funding," he says. "In fact, the worst per pupil in Wales in 1996. One primary school had been declared failing and three or four others were in serious straits.

"In the first few years, the priority was to get all our primaries performing well. And we did - we changed about 50 per cent of the heads and dragged funding up to the Welsh average. Standards have improved significantly. We haven't had a bad inspection in primary for more than six years."

Dragging up Torfaen's education spending has not been helped by a new funding formula for Welsh councils, introduced five years ago, that tends to favour "rurality", he says. But elected members have recognised the need for education to take a larger slice of Torfaen's modest cake and will give it higher spending priority from next April.

The inspection report on the council's strategic management in early 2004 praised the general direction of policy and planning and for effective partnerships. But it also said that the council needed to grasp some nettles.

Like other authorities in south Wales, Torfaen suffers from sharply falling rolls and many surplus places, as well as tatty school buildings, especially in Cwmbran. It needed to tackle those issues, and to institute better long-term financial planning, the inspectors said.

"It was a wake-up call," says Mr de Val simply. He praises the "exemplary" way in which councillors have responded, agreeing to major reorganisation plans in primary and secondary schools. These would involve closing one secondary and significantly expanding two others (cost, pound;12 million) and, in the primary sector, closing three and amalgamating 10 primary, junior and infant schools. There are plans to build three new primaries.

"For Torfaen, that's quite a lot of spending," says the director of education with satisfaction. He is looking forward to the "halo effect": the boost to standards that often follows from a better learning environment.

Mr de Val has been busy reorganising the education department too, bringing the advisory service, the inclusion team (special educational needs, extended schooling, vulnerable children) and the education psychology service together into the new directorate of school effectiveness, under the leadership of Catherine Simpson.

The next two years will probably be dominated by the upheavals of rebuilding and rationalisation. There will be interesting times ahead on 16-plus reorganisation too, where 11-16 schools in the north of the borough would like their sixth forms back. But Mr de Val is determined not to be diverted from the real purpose of it all: raising achievement and, above all, aspirations.

"There's no reason why youngsters here shouldn't reach the standards of young people in Surbiton, Edinburgh, Belfast or Paris - but they don't expect it of themselves," he says. "Wales has tremendous strengths: of community and solidarity, and a refreshing level of democracy and involvement.

"The top-down approach that exists in England would be anathema to Welsh councils, who have a real working partnership with the Welsh Assembly. But the weaknesses are those of aspiration and lack of an entrepreneurial approach. Unemployment in Torfaen may be below the Welsh average, but we score poorly on economic activity rates and business start-ups."

Mr de Val, 54, keeps fit for the challenge of running education in Torfaen by cycling in the Black Mountains on a Sunday morning. His wife, Nicola, an artist, will meet him at a scenic spot. (Their two children have left home: daughter, Jennifer, a newly-graduated pharmacist, to start work at a London hospital, and son, Andrew, to study at University College London.) But he goes for greater heights on holiday. He has cycled in the Moroccan Atlas Mountains and, this summer, cycled over all the Alpine cols on the route of the Tour de France. "I wasn't quite fit enough," he confesses. "I nearly expired on one or two summits."

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