Finally, Buggins misses his turn

Nic Barnard

He's the first outsider to take a top job at the DFES but, for a man who's just broken the mould, Peter Housden, the new director of schools, is strangely self-effacing, writes Nic Barnard.

PETER Housden keeps his cards close to his chest. What will be his priorities when he gets to London and his new job as director-general of schools at the Department for Education and Skills?

"I wouldn't venture an opinion from this distance," he says. So what about the balance between public and private sectors in education? The current chief executive of Nottinghamshire Council demurs: "It wouldn't be sensible to comment in advance of the White Paper."

Across the road at Trent Bridge, Australia's bowlers are laying waste to England's batting order to retain the Ashes. Inside County Hall, Mr Housden plays the straightest of bats.

Come November, he will effectively be number two at the DFES, running its most important division. His predecessor was David Normington, the department's new permanent secretary. It is the first time that the DFES has recruited from outside the civil service for such a senior post.

Mr Housden, 50, has spent nearly 20 years at Nottinghamshire, bar a brief stint at Lancashire. Before becoming chief executive in 1994, he was its director of education, and deputy before that. He saw schools through the arrival of local management, and the county through reorganisation as Nottingham city split away. Both upheavals were as painless as they could be.

His defensive bat is matched by a low media profile. The cuttings file casts forth just two mentions: in a list of members of an obscure government panel and as the author of a jokey letter to The TES in 1995.

But he commands respect. John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, called him "first class", and Mick Brookes, former president of the National Association of Head Teachers and a Nottinghamshire head, is equally enthusiastic. "He's a good man - intelligent, well-reasoned, but he's no pushover... His great strength is he's a problem-solver and, my God, we need one."

Local authorities, too, will be pleased by his arrival, marking as it does the end of the traditional civil service "Buggins' turn" approach to senior DFES appointments.

A former humanities teacher, who is married to a teacher and has three children, Mr Housden is a moderniser in a county where history hangs heavy. The pillars of county hall bear Stakhanovite statues of mineworkers. He talks with passion about the social exclusion agenda and his work chairing youth offending and drug action teams.

With 23,000 staff (he'll have only 1,000 at the DFES) his style is hands-off and pragmatic. He is comfortable about using the private sector extensively and talks of wanting schools to learn more from each other.

He's a networker, too. He keeps in contact with several Whitehall departments (though, curiously, not education). He has just spent six months seconded to the Audit Commission. He hopes to bring some joined-up thinking to the DFES.

He is proud of his roots as a Shropshire comprehensive pupil - probably the first to run a local authority - and a dry wit lurks. In early entries in Who's Who, he listed his interests as "ironing", until he self-effacingly expunged it.

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Nic Barnard

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