Wales has "fantastically inspirational" teachers who are hobbled by a lack of resources. That was the verdict of Sir William Atkinson, head of London's Phoenix High School, who gave the annual Wales Education Lecture in Cardiff last week.
Speaking to The TES Cymru, Sir William, who has been called a "superhead" for turning his school around, said: "The teaching force in Wales is vibrant and positive, with a can-do attitude. What it needs is fiscal resources. They don't lack passion and they don't lack ideas: they lack the resource base to enable them to succeed fully."
He also praised the attainment-raising school-effectiveness framework, the aims of which he said fitted with his own views on how to improve classroom standards. But he warned that such an ambitious strategy would not work without high-quality practitioners backed by sufficient resources.
"If you can even out and raise the performance you will have a significant impact on the learning power of the pupils," he said. "It's not easy, but it's something that's within the capacity of any organisation through sharing best practice."
Sir William applauded recent Wales-only initiatives, such as scrapping Sats and the introduction of the play-led foundation phase, but he gave a cautious welcome to the ambitious, vocationally led 14-to-19 learning pathways.
He said he supported introducing more vocational elements, but cautioned that focus on traditional academic subjects must remain so that pupils can thrive in the knowledge economy of the future.
Speaking earlier to an audience of 200 educationalists, including education minister Jane Hutt, at the National Museum Wales, Sir William called for a radical rethink of how to tackle underachievement in schools to close the attainment gap between the best and worst-performing pupils.
He said that, despite its power, central government cannot dictate how standards can be raised in a particular school. While there had been improvement over the past 20 years, he said the achievement gap remains "unacceptably high".
"Although central government can set a framework, have a vision, set targets and provide staff, they are unable to reach down and determine standards achieved by little Johnny in School X in Newport."
Smaller classes of between 15 and 20 pupils would make it easier to recruit and retain the best-qualified teachers in the most difficult schools, he suggested.
They should have enhanced conditions of employment, with higher starting salaries and effectiveness-based bonus payments and be supported by qualified staff, he said.
Sir William said improvement partners should be assigned to satisfactory and inadequate schools. But the top priority, he said, was a more significant level of funding.
"If we are serious about bridging this achievement gap, we have to look fundamentally at resources. The need of the young people that we are talking about is so great that we have got to get the resources to fight a war against underachievement. If we don't invest, what are those people going to do?"
Sir William's remarks were warmly welcomed by many of the heads and teachers attending the lecture.
Speaking after the lecture, Gareth Jones, secretary of teaching union the Association of School and College Leaders Cymru, said it was a "pleasant change" to have a serving school leader putting into words the thoughts of many in the profession.
"Targets and diktats by regulation have a role, but they will never break the link between deprivation and achievement. That can only come from supporting and fostering committed, outstanding teachers who inspire their students."
`Satisfactory is failure in my school'
Sir William Atkinson has received many awards and plaudits in his 38-year teaching career, including a knighthood for his services to education last year.
When he became head of west London's Phoenix High School in 1995, the school was in dire straits: labelled the worst in Britain by the Daily Mail, it was losing pupils and struggling to recruit staff. But under the leadership of the new head, who took a tough line on failure, it slowly turned itself around.
He said: "In my school, `satisfactory' is failure. We only begin to do some business at `good'. When we achieve `good', we look at what we need to do to get to the next stage, which is outstanding."
Last year, Ofsted called Phoenix a "remarkable school" - inspectors praised it for transforming the life chances of its students and Sir William was dubbed a "superhead".