FIRST MINISTER Rhodri Morgan has paid an unexpected tribute to a teacher who bowed out of his post at one of Wales's toughest schools last month,
Mr Morgan was invited to Cardiff's historic Coal Exchange last Thursday to toast the community efforts of the city's Fitzalan High School. But he also made an impromptu speech praising the school's former head of middle school, Barrie Phillips, who has resigned to set up his own photography business.
Sixty-year-old Mr Phillips first taught English and French at the tough inner city school in 1969. It was his first teaching post. He briefly left the school in the early 1980s for other work, including for Cardiff local education authority, and another private venture, but returned 12 years ago.
Mr Morgan said Mr Phillips had been among a group of talented teachers who had transformed the fortunes of the school over the past 10 years.
The school which has the highest number of ethnic-minority pupils in Wales has almost doubled the percentage of students obtaining A*-C GCSE grades during the period. It is also credited with being one of the first schools in Britain to introduce vocational education, with the early arrival of the GNVQ.
Last year, every pupil left with a qualification, despite being part of a catchment area that includes Bute town officially recognised as one of the most deprived areas in Europe.
"There are two kinds of people in this world, self-regarding and other regarding," Mr Morgan told the audience. "Barrie is the latter."
Valley-born Mr Phillips told how his love of education had started in the tough coal-mining town of Tonypandy in the Rhondda with parents who vowed that their son, unlike many others in the community, would not meet an early death down the pit.
But Mr Phillips said his first post at Fitzalan was a tough call for a Valley boy. "I had led a bit of a sheltered life in the Valleys the children at Fitzalan were very streetwise," he said.
During his bowing-out speech he referred to the words of American civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson on his recent visit to Britain. The Baptist minister said the one weapon that could overcome inequality was education. Mr Phillips' philosophy, so deeply ingrained in his roots, is that education was the key out of poverty.
"When I started out at Fitzalan around 100 pupils left without a qualification, last year there were none," he said.
The opening up of Fitzalan High to the community in recent years, in-keeping with the Assembly government's goal of community-focused schools, has brought it greater recognition and praise.
Mr Phillips, secretary of Fitzalan Parents Teachers' Association, chose to say his final farewells at the event, which was dedicated to raising money for a new multi-media and dramatic arts studio.
He said the docklands venue the site of the first million pound cheque to exchange hands in the UK when Cardiff was the biggest exporter of coal in the world was a fitting place at which to say his last goodbyes.