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'Don't appoint me just because I have a black face'

Former science teacher Kabir Shaikh defied his father when he became Britain's first Asian director of education.

His father, an education officer in India, had warned him: "Never become an education officer, the job is too political."

But the 54-year-old has now received an outstanding report from inspectors for his leadership and management in Bournemouth.

Mr Shaikh did not intend to follow his father's footsteps. He came to Britain as a research scientist in the early 1970s to find that his supervisor had gone overseas.

Forced to look for a job, he became a supply teacher in the Inner London Education Authority. Although he never had a formal teaching qualification, Kabir acquitted himself well in the labs of Kingsdale school in south London.

His dedication attracted the attention of Professor Dick West, then ILEA science inspector. It was not long before Mr Shaikh was a science inspector in south-east London and a key figure in West's team.

Hardly had he started inspecting than disaster struck: an HMI report came out which heavily criticised the standard of science teaching in his division.

At once, he devised an action plan for school improvement, linked to two-day inspections which he mainly carried out himself. The turnaround was so rapid that the action plan was picked up by the then chief inspector David Hargreaves and used throughout the authority.

After the ILEA was abolished, Mr Shaikh went to Ealing as chief inspector and deputy education officer. There he made a name for himself by reviving the teachers' centre and making it a centre of professional development.

It was not long before he was on the short-list for jobs in the new unitary authorities. But his appointment at Bournemouth was a bit of a surprise. "Don't appoint me just because I have a black face," he told the interview panel. "But I promise you that I can make a difference."

He soon impressed them as a leader with vision. "The Shaikh" was soon a familiar figure in schools, around the town and in the local newspaper. He came to live in the seaside town with his wife and family. When the inspectors came to Bournemouth they found the authority was bursting out with new initiatives from Sure Start to learning centres, classrooms of the future, specialist and Fresh Start schools, from technology to the arts and drama.

Mr Shaikh believes that accessibility and accountability to the community are the keys to a shared vision. As for his results, he is convinced that some at least stem from an ability to "analyse problems in a scientific way and come up with solutions".

He is not at all sorry that he disobeyed his father and became an education officer.

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