The first White Paper solely for education in Wales was gratefully received by education officers. Biddy Passmore reports
The new Government has realised that Wales is a different place from England.
This was a matter for rejoicing at last week's annual conference of the Welsh branch of the Society of Education Officers. It was held in Llandrindod Wells, in the Welsh heartland of Powys, on a dark and rainy day when the hills could hardly be seen. But there was no suppressing the sense of optimism and purpose among the 30 education officers gathered to discuss raising standards with their partners in the education service.
Even the title of the White Paper, Building Excellent Schools Together, the document they had met to discuss, the first ever devoted to education in Wales, lends itself to a positive acronym.
As Neil Harries, director of education of Caerphilly council and SEO chairman in Wales, said: "The White Paper in Wales has been more welcomed by my colleagues than the White Paper in England. It's got a different steer, different perspectives."
There was the news from Elizabeth Taylor, a senior Welsh Office official, that some parts of the new Education Bill, such as the creation of education action zones, may be delayed in Wales until the new Welsh Assembly is up and running and can make its own decisions on education. A 14-person committee, the Education and Training Action Group, is busy drawing up a template for Welsh education in the new era.
(The conference took place just the day after the Government of Wales Bill was published. But, as Mrs Taylor remarked, its appearance had been eclipsed by the Government's Bill to introduce tuition fees for students.) And more money is on the way. After several lean years, an extra Pounds 50 million for Welsh schools should mean that individual school budgets will rise next year, Mrs Taylor said.
There seems to be a more collaborative spirit in the principality which is not just the result of smallness of scale. Only 17 out of 1,900 primary and secondary schools have opted out, and some may well return to the local authority fold - so there is less bitterness between neighbouring schools and between schools and local authorities than in many parts of England. Except in a few areas, parents of all social classes send their children to the local school.
Bill Bailey, head of Denbigh High School and the next president of the Secondary Heads Association in Wales, expressed his reliance on his local authority. His school had experienced the death of a student, a fire in the technology department, the collapse of the sports hall roof and a flood last June. He said: "What would I have done if it had been a GM school?" he asked. "Reach for the Yellow Pages? I don't know."
Welsh local education authorities may have confidence in their role but life has not been easy for them in the past year or two. In 1996, Welsh local government had wholesale reorganisation imposed upon it, increasing the number of Welsh authorities from eight to 22 at a time of sharp reductions in funding. Some of the new-born authorities could provide only skeleton services.
But last week there seemed to be little of the hostility towards other partners in the education service that sometimes characterises education gatherings east of Offa's Dyke.
The education officers gave a relatively friendly reception, for instance, to Susan Lewis, chief inspector of schools in Wales. A distinctly low-key figure by comparison with her counterpart Chris Woodhead, she stressed the need for her inspectors to avoid duplicating the efforts of authorities in raising standards in schools.
But she was opposed to a suggestion from Richard Parry Jones, director of education of Anglesey, that the second round of inspections of Welsh schools, due to start next year, should target inspections on the worst-performing schools, leaving authorities to validate self-review by the remaining schools. All schools should be inspected by her office as a form of external audit and to give a balanced picture of the system as a whole, she said.
Education officers' concern about the variable standard of inspections emerged clearly during the session. Miss Lewis said any complaints about the performance of registered inspectors were taken very seriously, adding: "I have to say I don't get that many complaints."
"We do," chorused her audience, making it clear that inconsistency of judgments was the real problem.
Brian Mawby, Blaenau Gwent education director, asked why the Government continued with the system of contract inspectors rather than building up the number of HMIs centrally. Miss Lewis replied that she was not going to argue against that.
The conference was brought to a close by the charismatic Jeff Jones, leader of Bridgend council and education spokesman of the Welsh Local Government Association. Mr Jones was full of optimism. "Too often," he said, "what happens in Wales has been what happens in England with a few sentences changed. That's going to be different.
"Members of the Welsh Assembly will live in your areas and go to your schools," he reminded his audience. "It's a great opportunity to ensure that education gets its fair share of the cake." Wales would attract business because of its "bright, well-educated kids," he declared, adding: "We'll take the rest of the UK to the cleaners."