Urban warrior

Biddy Passmore

Cardiff's chief schools officer Hugh Knight is determined to raise standards and face the challenges head on. Biddy Passmore reports

Hugh Knight was born in Bristol and spent most of his teaching years in inner-city schools in London. But he would find it hard to return to the English education system now.

Despite all the challenges, the chief schools officer of Cardiff likes the "positive aura" about Wales and its capital city.

"In England, my colleagues seem to be driven by central government strategy," he says with horror. "In Wales, we had no National Literacy Strategy and no National Numeracy Strategy. We devised our own in Cardiff, and they worked."

Nor would he like to be working in a system marked by cut-throat competition between schools. "There's quite a strong tradition of collaboration between secondary schools, particularly evident post-14 and post-16," says Mr Knight.

Indeed, he has recently revamped all council communications about schools under the heading "the council and schools in partnership".

"Obviously we want schools to be confident and creative," he says. "We emphasise school self-evaluation and self-improvement - that's shown in inspection reports - working in partnership with the schools service."

That partnership is producing rising standards, especially at primary level, and a definite buzz in the approach of the authority's advisers and teachers to school improvement and innovation in teaching techniques.

As Estyn, the Welsh inspectorate, pointed out last autumn, progress in core subjects at key stage 1 has been greater in the city over the past six years than in all other Welsh LEAs, third greatest in Wales at KS2 and seventh greatest at KS3.

Only at KS4 has the authority been less successful, where it continues to trail behind the Welsh average in five or more A*-C grades at GCSE.

"We're the biggest city in Wales, with the biggest slice of urban challenges," says Mr Knight. "As the children get older, some of the negatives start to appear: poor attendance, high rates of exclusion and poor GCSE results. It's all about disaffection and disadvantage."

The attendance figures are still not good - absence from secondary schools is the highest in Wales. But there have been measurable improvements in the past few years as a result of targeted interventions, he says.

Home-school liaison officers now work in particular clusters of schools and the work of education welfare officers is focused on those with the greatest problems. The authority is in the middle of a staff training programme to ensure every school has a consistent behaviour policy.

On truancy and exclusions, the city's next moves will be guided by a forthcoming report from truancy guru Professor Ken Reid of the Swansea Institute of Higher Education.

Mr Knight is a friendly idealist, not the political Mr Fixit you might expect to find running a capital's schools. "His great strength," says Mal Davies, head of the Willows high school (see right), "is the focus he has given the authority on raising achievement for youngsters."

Teaching and learning, rather than structures and spending, are what fire the imagination of this former chief adviser. An English teacher who taught for 19 years in challenging, multi-ethnic schools in London (and wrote a TES prize-winning book, New Perspectives, on teaching English in a multi-cultural society) he moved to an advisory post in North Tyneside before becoming assistant education officer - effectively chief adviser - in South Glamorgan in 1994.

On local government reorganisation in 1996, Mr Knight retained that post in the new Cardiff county council. When a corporate structure was introduced in 1999, he became chief schools officer. Despite that title, and his position on a tier below the corporate director who covers education, he is the authority's statutory chief education officer. In April, he will assume responsibility for lifelong learning, too.

Much as he would like to concentrate on school improvement, much of his time over the next few years is likely to be taken up with reorganisation.

As last October's inspection report made clear, this is an issue that cannot be put off any longer.

"There are falling pupil numbers all over the city but we get migration from south to north," says Mr Knight. "The problem really kicks in at secondary age. On the whole, parents are content with their local primary school."

He welcomes the open approach of the council's new LibDem leaders, who are grappling with the issue. They have set up an informal advisory group which started to meet in October and has now published options. Decisions are expected by the summer. About a dozen schools are expected to close, including two of the city's 20 secondaries. In addition, one or two more secondary schools may become Welsh medium.

Nobody relishes the trouble in store but it has to be faced. "Leaving surplus places is a waste of scarce resources and leads to competition between schools," says Mr Knight. "What we need is a sustainable pattern for the next generations. Even in the shifting demography of Cardiff, we must make sure they're in the right place and then make them as good as they can be."

Quite enough to keep a chief schools officer busy, even without lifelong learning. He has not managed to learn Welsh since his arrival in Cardiff 10 years ago, but says his experience working as a supervisor in a French school before he went to university gave him "a little bit of an understanding of what it means to be bilingual".

He is delighted by Cardiff's flourishing Welsh-medium sector - often preferred by non-Welsh-speaking parents - and relishes the challenge posed by the 100-odd languages spoken by children in the city's schools. Provided the right support structures are in place, he says, linguistic diversity is an asset.

The jazz-loving Mr Knight lives in a large Victorian house in Penarth with his wife, a literacy consultant. Their three children have all left home to study.

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