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From Cityscape to ice floe

The man in charge of England's smallest authority is preparing to swap pupils for penguins, reports Helen Ward

After running England's smallest education authority for 14 years, David Smith, city education officer for the Corporation of London, is planning a post-retirement holiday in Antarctica.

It is almost too neat. Both places are inhabited by few people and both are of huge international importance - though the interests of an environmental wonderland and the City's financial wunderkinds do not exactly coincide.

Each day 320,000 workers stream into the square mile. The City of London's boundaries are still marked by statues of dragons and at the centre sits the Bank of England. Although the city seems to empty at dusk, there are 7,000 residents. Some are rich, but there are disadvantaged communities on the borders of the east end.

The main focus of the Corporation, which became an education authority in April 1990, is lifelong learning, providing services for the thousands of workers.

There is just one school, the 200-pupil Sir John Cass's foundation primary, which is a stone's throw from the steel rings of the Lloyds building. The school's families are predominantly Bangladeshi and most children do not speak English as a first language. This year 97 per cent of 11-year-olds achieved level 4 in English and 79 per cent did so in maths. It is a beacon school described by inspectors as "outstanding".

Mr Smith, now 59, is due to wave goodbye to the concrete surrounds of the authority's education services department next month. He has chosen to visit Antarctica with his wife Margaret because the continent's peaceful beauty appeals to them.

His journey will also take in the Falkland Islands in memory of a deceased former colleague and friend who worked there as a curriculum adviser. The pair had worked together in Buckinghamshire where Mr Smith was senior education officer before taking up his post at the Corporation in November 1998.

He said: "I think it is a mistake for people to equate a local education authority with running schools. That is rapidly becoming the be-all and end-all of LEAs but it wasn't thus 14 years ago." For six years, the Corporation ran the central London careers service on behalf of all the boroughs. It also set up a voucher system which adults use to fund further education. The authority has the top rating of three stars from the Office for Standards in Education, which said in its 2000 report: "From the point of view of the school, this is a Rolls-Royce service."

There are close links with neighbouring Hackney and Tower Hamlets authorities. Mr Smith is deputy chairman of the Hackney education action zone.

His most recent challenge has been to set up the City of London Academy in Southwark, which will specialise in business and enterprise. It will provide a secondary school for children of City residents who at the moment are "scattered to the four winds".

The academy opened this month for 180 Year 7 pupils but lthe building is 18 months behind schedule. Consequently the children take a bus three miles across the Thames to East Dulwich to work in 10 portable buildings on a disused playground.

Martyn Coles, head of the academy, said: "There were some difficult times and without Mr Smith's perseverance it wouldn't have happened. He has a quiet manner, but is determined and doesn't let detail go. He was at the first assembly at the school. I told the pupils that without Mr Smith we wouldn't be here. They applauded."

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