A beautiful challenge
The county of Ceredigion in west Wales seems like an educational paradise.
With beautiful scenery, well-behaved children, excellent results and high praise from inspectors, its concerns seem far removed from those of urban authorities.
This is a place where schools do not compete for children and children do not compete for places. Virtually everyone goes to the local school and, because of the authority's determination to keep village schools open, there is a school nearby in even the remotest corners of this sparsely populated county.
There are no independent schools, nor any specialist ones. The only choice is between Welsh or English-medium primaries - the vast majority are the former in this largely Welsh-speaking area - and between the two bilingual secondaries and five others.
There are not even any special schools. A handful of children with severe special educational needs are educated outside the county; nearly all of those with special needs are in mainstream classes or units attached to mainstream schools. (The inspectors praise that provision too.) Hard work to combat pupil disaffection means attendance figures for secondary pupils are among the highest in Wales and exclusion rates are below average.
Although Ceredigion regularly comes top of the Welsh GCSE and A-level league (it had to share the honours with Powys last year) the English obsession with results seems largely absent - and the Welsh Assembly has abolished league tables anyway. One secondary head was genuinely unable to tell The TES from memory how his school had fared on the five or more A*-C GCSEs benchmark last year.
The Welsh Inspectorate, Estyn, looked at Ceredigion's school improvement service last year and came up with glowing praise. The authority had been "particularly effective" in ensuring that teachers, officers and elected members shared a "common vision", said the report. Professional development for teachers and advisory staff was "very good" and "well linked to national aims and priorities and to influential projects". Schools felt they were in partnership with the authority. With very few exceptions, they "took on board new initiatives wholeheartedly".
Perhaps an authority doing so well and achieving such good results would be resting on its laurels? Well, no, said the inspectors. "The authority does not allow itself to become complacent about the performance of its schools and is often in the forefront of introducing innovation and change. It is challenging all its schools to do better."
Ceredigion knows very well that it has to keep innovating if it is to stay on top. As the inspectors point out, other high-performing authorities have made better progress in recent years and many schools at key stages 1 and 3 appear to be under-performing compared with similar schools elsewhere in Wales. County advisers have also found a worrying inconsistency in reading levels among primary schools in the same area.
The main challenge, of course, is the environment. Beautiful it may be, but it is thinly populated, with pockets of rural deprivation left by the decline in agriculture. The authority has to counter the isolation of such areas and make sure that its small village primaries are not just community icons but offer a broad education to pupils.
Small schools do not come cheap - primary costs are well above the rest of Wales. Bilingualism, wholeheartedly embraced, also adds to the cost and complication of staffing.
The past 20 years have seen big changes in population. Some able young people have left, lured by the bright lights and job opportunities of Cardiff, while a steady stream of migrants, mainly from England, has arrived - about 1,000 annually for the past 10 years. These newcomers are a welcome boost to numbers, although overall school rolls have yet to rise, but non-Welsh speakers coming into a Welsh- medium environment can add to the burdens of a small primary school.
Costs may be high but the authority is not lavish with its provision.
Primary heads, for instance, receive very little funding for administration. Cuts arising from the withdrawal of specific Gest funding (Grants for Educational Support and Training) threaten the county's cherished music service and in-service training.
But Ceredigion remains determined to make education a priority and to press ahead with reforms that will achieve higher standards.
"Thinking skills" is the mantra in schools, with a growing number adopting programmes based on Case (Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education ) or a model provided by Acts (Activating Children's Thinking Skills). Both pupils and teachers are blossoming as they develop their skills. Contact with outside experts who train teachers in the methods is a bonus.
On the organisational front, the policy is to group schools together into clusters or "families" of secondaries and their feeder primary schools, with the eventual aim of creating multi-site community schools. Already some "families" have adopted exciting new approaches that should both reduce isolation and raise standards. We report on some of them in the next few pages.