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Five years on: voices from Wales – Gareth Roberts

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“It was the Dutch teacher of “difficult and disadvantaged pupils” participating in a 1992 European Project who persuaded Jane to come out of the cupboard where she usually hid when visitors came to see the centre which she attended . It was a centre for pupils excluded from school. Jane and her classmates were persuaded to take part in a video conference with similar young people in a deprived area of Amsterdam. They talked about clothes and pop music with the Dutch teacher translating where necessary. The Anglesey children were surprised to learn that other youngsters had the same likes and concerns as them.

Between the mid 1980 and 1990s  a small technology centre in Llangefni became a European leader in Open and distant learning thanks to the Training and Vocational Initiative (TVEI) run by the “Training Agency” with match funding and support from (the former county of) Gwynedd and its Director of Education, Gwilym Humphreys, and the vision of the TVEI coordinator, Terry Brockley. 

Videoconferencing then involved the use of multiple ISDN telephone lines, rented at great expense from BT, as well as the constant availability of technical support. Incorporating visuals in teaching programs at that time was a slow, time-consuming process. One of the technicians trained by the scheme was appointed to a local school and was still in post twenty years later.

Headteachers, teachers and advisers were actively encouraged to participate in exchanges with and visits to colleagues in the EU to develop and share their professional expertise. Gwynedd organised its own share of courses for colleagues, notably in developing bilingualism. We had frequent overseas visitors to see how innovative technology, including videoconferencing, could overcome problems of teaching caused by rurality and a shortage of subject expertise, e.g. in Japanese.

It was the co-operative, multinational long-term projects, however, which enabled the greatest development. While working with international partners is not always easy, it can be rewarding. Topics included encouraging women back to work, developing women’s skills in technology, support for young people not in education, training or employment, and encouraging entrepreneurism as well as “the European Dimension” in general. 

International school-based projects have led to lasting friendships and have encouraged subject standards. One of the best examples of written work (which I saw when inspecting primary schools) came from a joint project between Welsh, Irish and Italian schools.

Not everything was a success, of course. TV programmes were prepared for and transmitted via the Olympus satellite before Sky and others started their innovations. Unfortunately, the French and German presidents wanted to see an international football match between their two countries and “diverted” the Olympus satellite from its original course in order to see it. The satellite refused to return to its original settings and orbit after the match and educationalists lost its use. One of our programmes, made in 1990 or 1991, showcased Gwynedd and its young people. We hired the Octagon nightclub in Bangor, filled it with students from Gwynedd schools and used a local pop group to supply the music.  The group did not become famous, but the lead guitarist is now the MS for Ynys Môn.

To sum up, limiting mutual communication and cooperation with our European neighbours, mean that the least favoured members of our society- the poor and the excluded- will continue to be deprived of opportunities. This short-sighted xenophobia will also adversely affect innovation and progress in the future.”


Gareth Roberts is a former educational adviser and consultant