Falling rolls are a thorn in the side of Dewi Jones, under pressure from Ofsted to cut surplus places. But, he tells Biddy Passmore, his priority is to ensure the best deal for every child
When Dewi Jones sits in his office, he can see and hear the fast road north from Cardiff. But it is not along that modern highway, or the M4 roaring west, that the heart of his work lies, but in the valleys in between, where mining has gone and deprivation has taken its place.
The director of education and children's services of Rhondda Cynon Taf is very clear about the council's overriding priority: the protection of vulnerable children. "Eighty thousand of our population live in abject poverty," he says. He has spent five years pursuing a policy of working with partners, inside and outside education, to try to mitigate its effects on children.
"Early intervention and prevention is a central part of our work," says Jones. "To prevent the need becoming so acute that it requires greater intervention."
The council's record on special educational needs shows the virtues of that approach. It manages to win high praise from inspectors for access and inclusion while spending slightly less per pupil than the Wales average, because it assesses and helps children with difficulties early, if possible within their mainstream school, and thus avoids the need for time-consuming statements.
High academic standards are by no means neglected. It is just that, as Peter Jenkins, head of Ferndale community school, puts it: "To get results here, you have to take a much more inclusive, wraparound view."
Results are improving, although still below the Welsh average. Jones points out that schools here often do better than others facing similar challenges. What really pleases him is that he can say: "Any child going into any school in Rhondda Cynon Taf will get at least a very good education and at best a very high level of educational experience."
His chief organisational problem arises from falling rolls. Like neighbouring Cardiff, Rhondda Cynon Taf has a great many surplus school places - 4,300 in primary and 4,000 in secondary - and has been criticised by the inspectors for not tackling the problem with sufficient vigour. But school closures, never easy, are especially fiercely fought in isolated communities.
The primary review programme had stalled but there is now political agreement to get it going again: 1,500 primary places are to be removed over the next 18 months. The problem is more complex in secondaries, mainly because of post-16 provision, but a review is under way and "going flat out", he says.
Dewi Jones is happy that Welsh-medium teaching is flourishing in the authority, although the recent surge in demand seems to be levelling off. A native Welsh speaker himself, he comes not from the valleys of south Wales but from Carmarthen. He was taught in Welsh at his primary school until an influx of English-speaking children prompted a change to English.
These days, he speaks English to his north Walian wife, and uses both English and Welsh in conversation with his son and at work - but he writes more happily in English.
He pursued a classic path, from grammar school to teacher training college (Trinity, Carmarthen, where he took geography and PE), not far behind Barry John - "the best outside half who ever lived".
That was just the first of many qualifications. He left Wales to teach in inner London, took an advanced diploma in developmental psychology at London University's Institute of Education ("Just fantastic people," he says of his tutors there - "When they'd finished with me I was so full of questions") and later acquired an Open University degree in humanities in education.
He returned to Wales as an area manager of adult education in South Glamorgan, before becoming senior assistant secretary of the Welsh Joint Education Committee, with a brief to develop a policy in defence of local education authorities. During his time there, he obtained an MSc in educational management - on the commercialisation of education.
The next step was to become director of education and leisure services for Merthyr Tydfil, from 1995 until he joined Rhondda Cynon Taf in 2000 as group director for education and youth services.
He seems always to have lived somewhere rural. While teaching in London, he backed on to Hainault Forest. Now, from his home in the lovely hamlet of Michaelston-le-Pit in the Vale Of Glamorgan, there is only a television mast to interrupt views of woods and meadows. A neighbour is Rhodri Morgan, First Secretary of the National Assembly, whose dog chases Jones when he is training for the Three Peaks Challenge run in aid of a children's hospital.
His wife is a consultant on special needs for the Vale of Glamorgan. Their son, Owain, 27, works for the Labour group in the Welsh Assembly. He has emerged unscarred from an upbringing by parents obsessed with education. "Could you please not talk about the national curriculum?"
he once begged them when he was eight.