Bridgend's chief education officer, David Matthews, believes his authority's supportive ethos is one its strengths. He explains his philosophy to Joe Clancy
There is a special mantra reverberating around the valleys of south Wales just now: "Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness." This is the dictum repeated over and over again by David Matthews, chief education officer for Bridgend, the featured authority at this year's National Education Exhibition and Conference for Wales. His words frequently come bouncing back to him whenever he talks to the heads of the 70 schools in his authority.
The tall and lean leader is on a mission to answer those calls for help by providing as much support as possible for all staff in all the schools under his control. He recognises heads and teachers are under growing pressure to deliver higher standards, and aims to provide the services to enable them to achieve those ever-increasing targets.
"I am very confident that heads see us as an approachable authority," he says. "We believe everybody is trying to do a good job until they prove differently. Where people want to do a good job they will get all the support they need." And he can be ruthless in his dealings with those who fail to avail themselves of that support. In his seven-year tenure, eight heads have been quietly dispatched.
"I don't believe in a naming and shaming type of culture," he says. "It doesn't work. All it does is perpetuate a cycle of decline because parents do not want to send their kids to a school that has been named and shamed."
Instead, the policy has been for a successful head in another Bridgend school to be brought in until a permanent appointment is made. In three cases, the stand-in became the permanent head. Matthews keeps a close eye on how schools are performing, with evaluations twice a term to check whether additional support is needed or whether the school is providing examples of good practice.
"We are always updating our knowledge of schools from data and reports by school development officers and advisers, he says. "It is almost indescribable how much more we know about our schools than we did in 1996, down to the performance of individual teachers.
"When you have that knowledge, you can direct your support services more effectively. If a school has problems, the earlier the intervention the better. In the first few years, there were five or six schools where we had a significant support programme.
"We have had schools where we have had major shake-ups and staff have left.
But now we have got no school that is giving us serious cause for concern.
There is no school in special measures. As the years have gone by, there are fewer schools that we have to do a major piece of work on."
A recent best-value inspection by Estyn, the schools inspectorate, on Bridgend's school improvement service confirmed the strategy's success. It shows the prospect of real improvement, said the inspectors.
Matthews is proud that almost 97 per cent of Bridgend parents still send their children to the local school. "We want kids to go to their local school with their friends who live in the same street," he says. "I am not a great advocate of specialist schools - they would certainly be difficult to operate in Bridgend."
He is also proud that in the past three years, all Estyn reports on Bridgend schools have been glowing with 97 per cent of lessons observed, judged satisfactory or better.
"Some of the recent inspections would lead us to believe that the schools cannot be any better," he says, "but we know they can. There is no complacency here. Even our best schools can improve. I am trying to build a culture where we never stop trying to improve - without killing our teachers."
To ease their burden, he plans to introduce by September a complete lesson-planning guide for use by primary school teachers, with lesson plans for secondary teachers to follow. This is designed to supplement the schemes-of-work documents that have been available to schools for three years. But he does not expect teachers to use all the spare time the guides save them on lesson planning for extra rest and recreation time for themselves.
He would rather they spent that time pursuing the other aids to professional development that his team have established. One he is particularly proud of is the dyspraxia pack available to every school, which he describes as "ground-breaking". He adds: "We are trying to help teachers to be more aware of what challenges children might face. How much time do teachers generally have to become aware of issues like dyspraxia?"
Matthews has been in charge of Bridgend since it was formed in 1996 when the former Mid-Glamorgan authority was split into four. "It was quite a challenge setting up an LEA from scratch," he says. "But we are smaller - we are able to get closer to what schools want."
An initial task was to set out the authority's mission statement in a 52-page document entitled "QED - Quality Education Development", which took two years to produce. "The soul of that document is still with us. We are planned up to the hilt in terms of where we are going."
Bridgend authority straddles the M4 between Cardiff and Swansea, stretching 20 kilometres (12.5 miles) from east to west, taking in the Llynfi, Garw and Ogmore valleys. It has a population of 140,000. Bridgend, with 35,000, residents, is the largest town. In the south of the authority, four-bedroom houses sell for as much as pound;400,000. In the valleys, where the coal mines now lie empty, houses can be purchased for less than a tenth of that sum.
As director of education, leisure and community services, David Matthews runs six recreation centres, six swimming pools, scores of parks, 130 children's playgrounds, 17 libraries and a country house conference centre with 19 letting bedrooms.
He adds: "There is an incredible demand for cultural opportunities. One in 10 children receive musical instrument tuition. The Bridgend Youth Theatre has a waiting list of 140. But we know a number of schools are not represented, particularly in socially-deprived areas.
"We aim to make everybody, wherever they live, get those opportunities to do drama and music. That means we may have to intervene in a more direct manner, providing free instrument loans, getting them involved in the junior orchestra, and giving them a greater opportunity to view cultural events.
Most of all, he wants those working in education in Bridgend to enjoy their jobs. "I like to hear the sound of laughter around me," he says. As he opens his door, right on cue a burst of laughter rings out from next door.
"Hear that?" he asks. As schools in Bridgend continue to improve, that sound will be the new echo reverberating around the valleys.
Conference connection: As the featured authority at the Cardiff conference next Thursday and Friday, Bridgend will display the documents it has produced ondyspraxia. the schemes of work it has produced for teachers and its Quality Educational Development report. Its cyberbus - a mobile internet cafe - will be parked outside and its youth orchestra will perform at the conference