Steady as he goes

25th June 2004 at 01:00
For 18 years, Roger Williams (above) has been the driving force in fostering high education standards in Ceredigion. Now he is handing over to Gareth Jones (right), in the same mould. Biddy Passmore meets both men

It was a happy twist of fate that brought Roger Williams to Ceredigion. The director of education of this small and beautiful county was born 63 years ago to Welsh-speaking parents further south, on the outskirts of Llanelli.

He went to the local grammar school and studied Welsh at Cardiff. But in his first teaching job in Wrexham, north Wales, he met his future wife, Glenys, who was from Ceredigion. And, after some to-ing and fro-ing, that is where they eventually settled.

First came a post as a community education officer in Pembrokeshire, which opened his eyes to the virtues of education for its own sake, rather than as an obligation. There followed two jobs back in Cardiff - as literature officer of the Welsh Arts Council and examinations officer with the Welsh joint education committee. In 1982, he returned to educational administration - and back west.

Roger Williams became assistant education officer at the Carmarthen headquarters of the then education authority of Dyfed, a "super-county" created in the 1970s by merging Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire (now Ceredigion). Four years later, he moved to be area education officer for Ceredigion. When Dyfed was split up in the local government reorganisation of 1996, he was the obvious choice to become director of education of the new unitary authority of Ceredigion.

He retires at the end of the summer, but he obviously still loves the job and the place. Standing on the seafront at Aberystwyth, he gazes out at the ravishing, blue expanse of Cardigan Bay and shows only mild impatience that The TES is well over an hour late for lunch. As he kindly remarks:

"Ceredigion is a faraway and inaccessible place - very difficult to reach by car."

One of his chief concerns over the past 18 years has been to reduce the isolation and parochialism that are natural in such a remote rural area, getting schools to work together and - with outside and foreign experts - to raise their sights.

The comment that most pleased him in the recent report on the authority from Estyn, the Welsh inspectorate, shows how well he has succeeded. "The LEA has been particularly effective in ensuring that teachers, officers and elected members share a common vision of and commitment to its educational aims and objectives," it said.

A music lover and former member of the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, Mr Williams also takes great pride in the continued flourishing of the county music service, despite the difficulties caused by the delegation of most funds to schools. "We have maintained the peripatetic music service pretty well," he says. Pupils from Ceredigion continue to take far more than their share of places in Wales's national youth orchestra, brass band and choir.

However, he foresees continuing financial storms - affecting not just music but many other initiatives - as the result of the withdrawal of Gest (Grants for Education Support and Training) funding. "This year has been fairly catastrophic for Ceredigion," he says. In the switch from Gest to the new Better Schools Fund, the county lost pound;275,000.

He is also worried about the growing pressures on staff, especially primary heads and education officers. "Being a head in the proper sense in 2004 does not go well with being in class for much of the week," he points out.

As for his 60 education officers and advisers (they often wear both hats), he wonders if there are too many demands on them in a small authority.

As he looks back, he stresses the enormous change in the nature of the rural community in Ceredigion over the past 20 years: newcomers from England replacing the indigenous young people who have headed off to the bright lights of Cardiff.

"If you go to a rural primary school at 3.30pm, you will find the strangest accents," he says. "These in-coming parents are happy to have Welsh-medium education for their children, but a child without a word of Welsh entering a class of 15 eight to ten-year-olds adds to the problems of mixed-age and mixed-ability teaching."

He welcomes the advent of the Welsh Assembly, glad that Welsh authorities no longer have to scramble to make sense of legislation better suited to London or Birmingham. He can see pros and cons with cabinet government at local level - faster decision-making but less involvement of most councillors with major services.

But he has some regrets about the new, corporate approach (he himself is responsible for culture and leisure services as well as education). That means less time to visit schools, for instance. "The job has become much more centralised and generic and corporate," he says. "Not so much desk-bound as meeting- and committee-bound."

What will he do this autumn, when he breaks free of these binds? He has no definite plans. Spend more time tending to his large garden in the village of Rhydlewis, 30 miles to the south, and playing Bach and Mozart on the piano, is the most he can think of. "I don't like talking about myself," he pleads.

Fortunately, others will talk about him. "He was the only area director in Dyfed highly enough regarded by heads to be nominated as external assessor in the early days of performance management," says Arwel George, head of Penweddig comprehensive in Aberystwyth.

"He has done a fantastic job," says Eifion Evans, head of Plas Crug bilingual primary school and chair of the Aberystwyth heads' association.

"Steadfast and rock steady," he adds.

But sadness at Mr Williams' departure is tempered by the feeling that a man of sterling qualities has been appointed to succeed him. "I want to say Roger will be missed - but with the quality and character of the person coming instead, there won't be a hole," says Mr Evans diplomatically Gareth Jones, who takes over in September, is also a native Welsh speaker and former teacher of Welsh. He was head of Lampeter secondary school for 16 years before being seconded to the authority to take charge of performance management. Today he is senior school manager, as well as one of the link advisers for the Aberystwyth area.

Performance management was "a bed of nails but it went OK," says Mr Jones modestly. "The answer lies in relationships with people. You' must have a system, not rely on ad hoc arrangements."

Mike Francis, head of English at Penglais comprehensive in Aberystwyth, who has worked with Mr Jones on transition from primary to secondary schools in the town, says the incoming director is "probably the nicest person ever to get a job like this". His enthusiasm converted everyone to supporting the transition project, he adds.

"If he can do something to help, he really will. Whether he can be that generous in his new role, I don't know. He'll have to grow two or three extra skins."

Mr Jones is obviously a dab hand at personal relationships and far too tactful to be more than studiously vague about any areas he might like to improve on as director ("communication - restructuring - attainment!" he offers.) But he knows he should improve his own ICT skills, which are "pretty poor".

Meanwhile, he turns out to have a nice line in uplifting rhetoric (It's not the standard of living but the quality of life") and in improbable statistics.

"I'm off now to train governors," he announces at the end of our interview.

"They reckon that, with so many small schools, one in every 10 people in Ceredigion is a governor. And there's only one set of traffic lights in the whole county," he adds, before disappearing with a charming smile.

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