Mines of inspiration

4th March 2005 at 00:00
Once the pits were the biggest employers in these valleys. Today, education provides most jobs in an area rediscovering itself after years of decline and depopulation. Biddy Passmore reports

Dewi Jones surveys his patch, the former mining settlements in the valleys of Rhondda Cynon Taf. "The unending terrace" is how the director of education describes them. But he readily appreciates the natural beauty around him, especially in the frosty sunshine.

There are no mines today. The slag heaps have turned into odd-shaped hills while the winding gear still standing at one or two former pitheads is just a museum curiosity. Herons have returned to the river Rhondda.

Long dependence on a single industry that closed quickly has left the scars of poverty, multiple deprivation - and depopulation. Many of those who have stayed are unemployed or on sickness benefit. Most of those who work leave their valley to do so.

As one head told The TES : "When I drive up the valley to the school in the morning, everyone else is coming out."

Employment is now mainly in light manufacturing and the service sector. And the biggest single employer? Education, including the University of Glamorgan at Pontypridd, the authority's biggest town.

There are middle-class pockets, notably along the M4 corridor. But one in three people lives in areas defined as among the most deprived in Wales. On every poverty count, from free school meals to teenage pregnancy or youth unemployment, Rhondda Cynon Taf features near the top of the league.

But it also features high up in other ways. It is the second largest education authority in Wales (after next-door Cardiff) and a pioneer that has won praise from inspectors, heads and outside agencies for its inclusive approach.

Last year heads rated most of their services in the top quarter of all the authorities in England and Wales. They are offered a wider range of training courses than Birmingham.

Recent successes include the National Autistic Society's autism inclusion award (2003), joint first place for the youth offending team in the Youth Justice Board's league tables for preventing crime (October 2004), and the adoption across Wales of the authority's Genesis project to give parents free childcare so that they can work or study.

This is an area where an energetic education authority, working closely with welfare services and others, can make a decisive difference to people's lives and prospects.

Its top priority is to support vulnerable children. It does so, where possible, within families and mainstream schools; where not, it does so at least within the county borough. "As much inclusion as possible, as much provision as necessary," is the resonant mantra of Mike Keating, an assistant director of education, a view exemplified by the authority's behaviour support service (see page 17).

Schools work closely with parents, many of whose school experience - often at the same place as their children - was one of failure. The education-business partnership of 130 companies gives work experience to every secondary pupil, while activity in the arts ranges from harpists in schools to Sonig, a project aiming to unleash young people's creative talents through rock and pop music.

Community schools are more than just a name in Rhondda Cynon Taf. One of the best does not even call itself that: Ynyscynon early years centre, the pioneer of three integrated centres that really do provide wraparound care.

Pen Pych primary is doing all it can to involve the local community, including fathers. Ferndale secondary, in the upper Rhondda valley, is doing outstandingly well at looking after children, often with multiple problems, say the inspectors, as well as boosting performance. We look at these in the following pages.

A new community education project in Garth, a pound;33 million private finance initiative, should open next Easter, providing everything from early years to adult education on the same site, with a youth centre and sports facilities nearby.

Estyn, the education watchdog, inspected the authority's strategic management last autumn and was impressed. (The verdict on special educational needs services a year earlier pronounced them good.) The inspectors praised the authority's "clear vision and sense of purpose", "strong effective leadership", good business planning, especially for access and inclusion, and sound financial control. But they withheld the top rating of "outstanding" because of its failure to tackle surplus places or to involve elected members closely enough in developing strategies and policies - not, perhaps, surprising at a time of political upheaval: Labour, ousted by Plaid Cymru in 1999, won a hefty majority last year.

The inspectors also praised the integration of education and children's welfare services in Rhondda Cynon Taf, the only authority in Wales to have united them under a single directorate, in line with the approach of the recent Children Act. This was "starting to improve service delivery", they said.

As this supplement went to press, it seemed that council leaders might make changes to that management structure. But, whatever they decide, it seems clear that the policy of providing integrated care and education for the benefit of each individual pupil will remain.

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