The land where learning is prized

10th June 2005 at 01:00
One head is uniquely placed to note the cultural differences between England and Wales, Anne Horner reports

The grass really is greener in Wales according to the national treasurer of the Secondary Heads Association, Brian Lightman. He believes that heads in the principality - which has increasingly pursued a separate education agenda - have many reasons to count their blessings.

He has worked in Wales since 1995 and is head of St Cyres, an 11-18 comprehensive in Penarth, the Vale of Glamorgan. When he first arrived he found a different culture already existed, and he has seen the two countries diverge even more since the Welsh Assembly was formed in 1999. As someone who has worked in both countries in a leadership role, and who retains strong links with England through his work for SHA, he is in an excellent position to compare the strengths and weaknesses of the two systems.

"It was a very satisfying move for me to come from England having worked there for 15 years," he says. "When I came here it was a bit like going back in time. There was a very different set of values and culture at the time. Lots of things were less well developed here, such as work on teaching and learning styles and information technology."

At that time Wales, he says, was up to 20 years behind England in some respects but great progress has been made since then.

"It has caught up a long way.It has been a very exciting time to be in Wales."

He was struck by how different the pupils seemed from the Essex youngsters he was used to. He observed that the Welsh were much more open but also less sophisticated than his former charges and that "children are still children in Wales for far longer. They are more playful and they are simpler to deal with."

The dapper 50-year-old found that schools and education were highly prized in Wales. He believes that this is something that has been eroded in England by league tables and the Office for Standards in Education.

What he hasn't missed since leaving England is the competition between schools. In Essex, where he was deputy head of St Martin's in Brentwood, five schools were competing in one catchment area. He has seen the situation worsen in England as schools apply for specialist status to get more money. In Wales, he has found that heads have a "real overt commitment and a strong belief" in comprehensives.

"Headteachers in Wales strongly defend comprehensive schools. We believe that our system is very good," he says. He notes a big difference between schools' attitude to Ofsted in England and Welsh schools' perspective on its equivalent in Wales, Estyn.

"Estyn has a really deeply embedded culture of identifying good practice, but this does not mean that they are a soft option. Inspection is rigorous and schools can go into special measures but the overarching culture is one where good practice is celebrated. Estyn is very accessible," he adds.

He praises the Welsh Assembly for creating an open culture. "Assembly members are very, very accessible and take great pride in that. They all have email addresses so you can write to them. You can get hold of them very easily and this applies right up to the education minister herself.

That's a great strength. There is meaningful discussion which the whole education community engages in."

Welsh education minister Jane Davidson, who was appointed in October 2000, was keen to be seen as a listening minister. She commissioned a review of the national curriculum which led to the abolition of national tests - much to the delight of Welsh headteachers. Mr Lightman describes Wales's dropping of league tables (and national tests which will be abolished at all key stages by 2008) as "a tremendous example of how common sense has prevailed".

His school is one of those chosen to pilot the Welsh baccalaureate which he considers as being another jewel of the Welsh system. Headteachers in England were dismayed when the Government failed to adopt Tomlinson's radical recommendations for an overarching diploma of academic and vocational qualifications for 14 to 19-year-olds to replace GCSEs and A-levels, although Ruth Kelly is now promising to look again at the issue.

In Wales the bac, which is being piloted in 19 schools, is to be rolled out to all sixth forms.

Despite the picture he paints of an educational utopia, he does still have some cause to envy his English neighbours. He feels that schools in Wales have had a raw deal over funding. He says: "SHA has proved conclusively that schools in Wales are far worse funded than English schools. This amounts to Pounds 150-pound;200 per pupil at secondary level."

He believes Wales suffers from having too many local education authorities.

Before the latest round of local government reorganisation, there were eight: now there are 22. "Too many of the local authorities are too small," he says adding there has been an enormous amount of duplication."

The size of the authorities means their support services suffer, he says.

"In Essex they could provide high-quality support services because the authority was so large." While he says that the commitment to bilingualism is laudable, the pressure to create more Welsh speakers is affecting schools. "Schools are really struggling with compulsory Welsh at age 16," he says. This causes difficulties for his school, which has a mixed intake and is in a multicultural area near Cardiff.

However, he is becoming concerned that the separateness of Wales may start to cause problems. Although it is good to have a distinctive education system, there are many positive things happening in England and there is a danger that Wales could become too insular.

"Sometimes it seems that we need to do everything differently," he says.

Sometimes there is a good reason to reinterpret policies in Wales, but this is not always the case, he believes.

In future he would like to see the two systems learning from each other more. "It is right to have development but I wouldn't like to see us going so far away that we don't talk to each other."

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