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Tricky touchdown for new exam chief

For Gareth Pierce, taking over from Wyn Roberts as chief executive of the Welsh Joint Education Committee was a poignant step. Not only were his shoes large ones to fill, given the regard in which Roberts was held when he died last summer, but the two were also friends.

"I had very mixed feelings about taking this appointment. Wyn and I were close friends and we used to play five-a-side football and tennis together.

It's very sad that we lost him."

Pierce rationalised his decision as a chance to build on his friend's accomplishments. "He left a very positive legacy. He had a sound common-sense approach, and met high standards in terms of integrity and managing the business. This is something I hope to take forward," he said.

His personal vision for the Welsh exam board is to steer it into the technological arena. But despite this enthusiasm, Pierce says it is not feasible to rush ahead where electronic assessment is concerned. "We've got to move at the same pace as the schools and colleges. We have to look at the extent to which they have the facility for administering an exam in an IT environment, and what investment is needed."

Pierce, 51, who took up his current post in April, has an eclectic CV. He studied maths and statistics at Bangor and Aberystwyth universities (the subject fitted in with his passion for playing rugby).

One of his first jobs was as a research officer at the WJEC in 1979. There followed stints as a statistician for the health service, head of maths in a Welsh-medium comprehensive in Caerphilly, a senior lectureship at the University of Glamorgan, education officer with the Welsh Local Government Association, and five years as director of resources at Trinity college in Carmarthen.

He lives in his native West Wales - the Gwendraeth Fach valley in rural Carmarthenshire - with his wife and sons Gwyn, 12, and Sion, 14, and makes the daily trek to Cardiff to work.

One former colleague describes him as a good leader who enjoys clear vision and has the ability to engage and motivate staff.

Certainly, in conversation Pierce has a comfortable, low-key style, and is an easy communicator. He describes himself as a facilitator, someone who likes to get to grips with issues properly, and work with people to find a way forward.

But while Wyn Roberts may have left behind a fruitful legacy, other issues inherited by Pierce are more tricky.

The Clywch report on the sexual abuse of pupils by former drama teacher John Owen levelled severe criticisms at the WJEC. It revealed that it was aware of problems involving Owen as early as 1988, yet failed to act.

Pierce is anxious to point out that things have moved on, and that the WJEC is working with the Children's Commissioner's office on reviewing its child protection policies.

Similarly, a Charities Commission investigation into mismanagement of EU grants belongs to another era, he says.

Yet with all this on his plate, Pierce still manages to play squash in the Pembrokeshire league, and revels in mountain walking, cycling and tennis.

As for rugby, his playing days may be over, but Pierce remains an avid supporter of the Llanelli Scarlets, and is a loyal season ticket-holder.

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