A comprehensive chief for Newcastle

Diane Spencer

David Bell, in the job as chief education officer of Newcastle upon Tyne for just one week, sounded remarkably cheerful and positive about his future career, considering his predecessor left suddenly and he is the fifth in the post in the past 10 years.

"I had been looking to move on (he was assistant director for the past five years) before this blew up. I was shortlisted for a number of jobs, and had two serious approaches. Ultimately I decided I wanted to stay on. I like working in this city. There are a lot of people of goodwill. We have no grant-maintained schools. There's no great interest in fragmenting the service."

He hopes that his commitment will send out "a powerful message" as he believes "we can turn the service round".

Newcastle is having to deal with two failing schools at the moment and severe budget cuts. Primary heads passed a vote of no confidence in Nils Purser, the former chief officer, last June. The city council set up an inquiry into the running of the department and he resigned amid rows between the Labour and Liberal Democrats.

Mr Bell, a youthful 36, is a product of Glasgow University and Jordanhill College "I'm probably the first comprehensive school-educated chief education officer."

He is also unusual in rising through the ranks from a primary school background.

His immediate priority is to raise standards of achievement by setting targets for the education authority and schools. "We had some encouraging A-levels last week. It's easy to be sucked into the administrative detail of the job. Education must be at the heart of it; I want to be actively involved by working closely with head teachers. I think all of us are obsessed with resource issues, but I want to focus on education issues."

He will also be rethinking priorities on inspection. The education committee, he said, had pulled back from OFSTED work and might want to pull back further. (His predecessor had been criticised for allowing advisers to spend more time with OFSTED teams than on helping schools deal with problems.) "As a registered inspector I have some commitment to OFSTED. I know what it's like. I am keen to talk to colleagues about that."

Indeed, Mr Bell is "anxious to be quite visible" with weekly visits to schools to meet heads and governors. "I've always had a walk-about style which I'm determined to maintain, but my diary is already filling up," he said, ruefully.

Friends praise his approachable, manner and his fluency as a public speaker.

Many of his views, articulated earlier this year at a Fabian Society seminar intended to encourage new thinking on education in Labour circles, chime with the views of the party's education spokesman, David Blunkett.

One admirer said: "He's very ambitious and good luck to him. He's prepared to consult widely on how to achieve better schools" The new CEO is a member of an education reform group along with distinguished educationists such as Margaret Maden, former CEO of Warwickshire, and Professor Michael Barber of London University's Institute of Education.

He is keen to build on links he established in Atlanta, Georgia, where he spent a year recently on a Harkness Fellowship as he believes Britain could learn a lot from the American experience.

As for hobbies: "Scottish country dancing - it's very therapeutic. I must make sure I do more of it."

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