The man who turned Cardiff’s ailing education department around

Police called by frightened teachers, a legionalla scare, and the worst school report ever published by Estyn – these are just some of the issues Cardiff’s outgoing education director Nick Batchelar had to deal with during his time in the city.

Seven years kater the landscape is almost unrecognisable. Crumbling buildings have been replaced, new schools have been built, and pupils and communities in areas where the local secondary was a source of shame are now proud of them. Two secondaries have achieved the highest possible marks from Estyn and others have improved.

But there is still work to be done, stressed Nick, who has spent the last few months of his 40-year career tackling the terrible effects of Covid-19 and school closures on education. Hundreds of pupils and staff have had to self-isolate and there are fears, as there are across all local education authorities, about the effect on learning.

Arriving in August 2013, at a time when the Cardiff’s education services had been under Estyn monitoring for three years, Nick said there were “no surprises”  when inspectors deemed it had worsened by 2014 and was by then in need of “significant improvement”.

Exam results did not compare as well as they should with other local education authorities in Wales and the rate of young people not in education, training, or employment in Cardiff was the highest in Wales.

Nick knew improvement was needed, which is why he took the job.

Coming from a role in Bristol, where he had overseen overhaul of schools there, he was new to Wales when he took post leading education in Cardiff, which was among the most challenging in the sector here at the time.

Almost immediately he had to deal with the problem of the closure of the failing Llanrumney High School, a year early in August 2013, and its move to the old Rumney High site.

Rebranded as Eastern High, the merged schools had to send pupils home in the first two weeks of term in September 2013 when legionella, the bacteria causing Legionnaire’s disease, was discovered in the water system.

The old school was in a crumbling state of disrepair
Headteacher Armnado Di Finizio at the delapidated old Eastern High building, which was replaced with a new build
The new Eastern High opened in Trowbridge in January 2018
The new Eastern High opened in Trowbridge in January 2018

The closure of Llanrumney High School and the subsequent launch of Eastern High had been fast-tracked using ministerial powers never seen before in Wales and everyone’s eyes were on it.

But that was only one of the tasks crossing the new education director’s desk. And it was what he had come for.

“In the early days I was clear there were difficult decisions that needed to be taken, which is why I took the job, because I knew I could make a difference. I was looking for a professional challenge,” he said.

Although he stressed that some education practice in the city was as “good as you would see anywhere” that was not the case across the board.

Nick Batchelar during a school visit
Nick Batchelar during a school visit

Headlines from the early years show a drip feed of depressing reports. In January 2014 the new education boss warned he would remove ineffective school leaders. At that time 18 of the city’s schools were deemed by the council to be underperforming.

He said the key barriers to school improvement were “quality of leadership and/or quality of governance” and the council was prepared to step in as it had done in St Alban’s RC Primary School. After a damning inspection report found “systemic failures” in management the Tremorfa school became the first in Wales to require an interim executive board (IEB). 

In March 2014, less than a year after his arrival, Estyn wrote to the council’s chief executive Mark Orders saying the education authority was is in need of “significant improvement”.

The inspectorate noted that Cardiff’s new education director was taking action, though, adding: “He has clarified the relationship between the authority and its schools and has taken action to challenge schools more robustly.

“He is working closely with the regional school improvement service to improve the quality of monitoring, challenge, support and intervention for schools in Cardiff. He has also led the development of anew Education Development Plan for implementation from January 2014.”

Things could not be changed overnight though.

The following year, in perhaps the worst inspection report it had ever published, Estyn warned that teaching was “not good enough”, bullying was “frequent”, and safeguarding was a concern at Cardiff’s old Eastern High. The school, now rebuilt and thriving under a new head, was a byword for trouble at the time. Teachers have since told how pupils rioted and they feared for their safety as well as safety of staff.

In 2016 inspectors found half the children at two Cardiff secondary schools, Glyn Derw High School and Michaelston Community College, couldn’t read effectively. The schools, both since closed, were also notorious. At the time they were sharing a site as part of a consolidation process ahead of building a new secondary school to serve the west of Cardiff. In April 2016 the old Glyn Derw building was torched by arsonists – it was not a popular place among some in the community.

Now that area of Cardiff is served by the new Cardiff West Community High, built in a new site and also thriving under a new head. Nick said he wanted the new schools to be places the community could use and be proud of. He was all too aware that some children were embarrassed to say which schools they attended and he wanted to change that.

Melanie Godfrey replaces Nick Batchelar as Cardiff council director for education and lifelong learning on November 16

Cardiff appoints a new director for education and lifelong learning

Cardiff council’s new director for education and lifelong learning is Melanie Godfrey.

She joins on November 16 from her role as Welsh Government deputy director of education, planning, and governance.

Working at the Welsh Government since 2006 she has more than 18 years experience in the education and training sector, beginning her career at Newport council after graduating from the University of Sussex.

In 2002 she joined ELWa, the Assembly-sponsored public body for post-16 learning in Wales, and held a number of roles there including strategic investment to support new teaching and delivery models in schools and colleges.

But new buildings and uniforms are “not a magic bullet” he cautioned as he ends his tenure. Strong leadership and governance are also needed. Rather than lose the people working in education in the city when he came he said most of the staff are the same. Although some have left a majority are still here and he was keen to improve practice and get them on board.

“Everyone wanted to see improvement. I went into a lot of schools. There was good practice that would stand up anywhere and people wanted to help to improve education.

“There was also, clearly, some performance to improve and some really challenging school organisational difficulties.”

As he worked to up performance and the city’s ageing school buildings, Nick was pleased when Estyn judged performance had improved and removed the city’s education department from monitoring in 2016.

At the heart of all his work were children and young people in the city, said Nick. He visited as many schools as he could and spoke to pupils as well as staff.

He also worked with local employers and businesses to get them to help cut numbers of teenagers who became neets (not in education, employment or training).

“There were horrible things said about some young people in some schools in Cardiff,” he said, adding that schools can have a huge effect on their whole communities and “seeing pupils whose lives have got tangibly better” is rewarding.

In his time in the job the city’s most notorious secondaries have been rebuilt and rebranded. New-builds are in progress at Fitzalan High, the second school in the city to have the highest Estyn rating of excellent across all areas, as well as at Cantonian High.

Coming to the end of his 40-year career during the unusual circumstances of pandemic Nick cautioned that this must not detract from the biggest change to education in a generation – the new curriculum. It would be “folly” to let that slide, he warned.

And although Cardiff’s schools have improved it is still work in progress. That is something, along with the effects of coronavirus, that his successor Melanie Godfrey  will have to work on.

“I have really enjoyed working in Cardiff and Wales. I’m delighted to see education in a strong place now.

“But more still needs to be done and there are challenges ahead.”

WalesOnline – Cardiff