Man with a millstone around his neck

13th October 2000 at 01:00
Biddy Passmore talks to Richard Parry Jones, Anglesey's new lifelong learning and leisure supremo.

RICHARD Parry Jones is rather pleased to have a windmill within his new empire.

Two weeks ago, his title changed from director of education for the Isle of Anglesey to corporate director of lifelong learning and leisure, part of the reshaping of local government that is sweeping through the 22 unitary authorities in Wales.

Leisure brings with it libraries, leisure centres, a large art gallery - and a working mill as part of the island's heritage. An appropriate charge, he thinks, for a man from a family of Anglesey millers going back many generations.

But he is uneasy about his change of role and about the possible downgrading of education within local government. Several good education officers have been lost in the past year who either didn't want or didn't get one of the new corporate posts, he says.

That unease is likely to surface at today's annual conference in Llandrindod Wells of the Welsh section of the Society of Education Officers, of which Mr Parry Jones is chairman. "I'm not quite comfortable with the concept of the generic manager," he says. "I'm from an educational background - the public expects people to be specialists."

Mr Parry Jones is a pivotal figure in Welsh education. In addition to his SEO role, he is vice-chair of the Association of Directors of Education in Wales (ADEW), the employers' organisation, and becomes chair next year.

He chairs the ADEW group overseeing the introduction of performance management of teachers in Wales. And he is a member of the General Teaching Council for Wales, which had its first meeting last week.

It's hard to tell which passion courses more strongly through his veins - education or Welshness. A native Welsh speaker, who usually launches forth at SEO meetings in Welsh (including some jokes he doesn't translate for the non-Welsh speakers), Mr Parry Jones has spent nearly all his life in north west Wales.

Born in Anglesey in 1949, he moved with his parents to Caernarfon, where he attended grammar school. He went to university in Aberystwyth where he studied Welsh and then taught Welsh language and history at two comprehensives in Anglesey. He became a member of UCAC, the Welsh teachers' union. While teaching, he completd an MA in medieval Welsh poetry and he remains an active member of a competitive team of poets, writing in the strict Welsh metre inherited from medieval times.

In 1983, he became an education officer with Gwynedd County Council. Initially appointed to deal with the fall-out from the 1980 and 1981 Education Acts, he soon found himself as the local authority co-ordinator dealing with the teachers' strikes that were engulfing the education service.

"I was thrown in at the deep end," he says. "It was very valuable in terms of experience and in forging relationships with heads."

He moved swiftly up the ranks, taking charge of schools and joining the advisory team. In 1996, on local government reorganisation, he became director of education for Anglesey - an island with a population of 70,000 and five secondary schools.

He still lives in Caernarfon with his wife Marion, a part-time geography teacher.

While nervous about the current rush to corporate management, Mr Parry Jones acknowledges that the position of education authorities in Wales is much more secure than in England.

"We're very mindful of what's happening over the border - the mixed economy, with an increasing number of private companies running mainstream services, even the whole education service in Islington. We're very far removed from that in Wales, where there's a very close association between local government and the national assembly."

A keen devolutionist, he dislikes the tendency to knock the new assembly, although he would prefer its small, hard-pressed education department to make even greater use of the expertise within LEAs to deliver a different agenda for education in Wales.

Performance management of teachers, farmed out to private contractors in England, is run by LEAs in Wales. They hope to lead in the training of heads too.

Mr Parry Jones hopes that the current consultation on threshold assessment for teachers, forced on the Government by a legal ruling, might result in some concession on the assessment criteria. "It has to be taken forward in partnership with teachers," he says.

The new director of lifelong learning and leisure takes refuge from paperwork and meetings in "the odd game of golf" and mountain-biking through Snowdonia. "In this job, personal time is at a premium."

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