Hammersmith diva bows out

The firebrand who transformed a London authority into an educational flagship is stepping down. Amanda Kelly reports

CHRISTINE Whatford is not the sort of person you forget easily.

With a disposition that has been likened to both a left-wing Margaret Thatcher and a fiery Wagnerian diva, Hammersmith and Fulham education department will seem a less colourful place when she leaves the helm next month.

Over the past 13 years she has built up the authority from scratch, with a dynamism that has more than matched her flamboyant appearance and made it one of the most highly rated in the country, with A-level, GCSE and national tests for 11-year-olds above the national average.

The London Oratory, where the Blairs sent their two eldest sons, is in the borough, as is the high-profile Phoenix school, the model for the Fresh Start initiative.

She has also made her mark regionally and nationally as chair of the Association of London Chief Education Officers, national president of the Society of Education Officers in 19992000, and the "resident atheist" on the Dearing committee reviewing the role of church schools.

Alan Parker, president of the SEO, said: "If there's one person who's spoken out against central government control-freakery and in favour of the local management of schools, it's Christine."

Although "whirlwind", "a tad scary", and "puts the fear of God into you" are all expressions used about her by friends and colleagues, standards at the borough have risen consistently.

Gillian Palmer, Hammersmith and Fulham's chief schools inspector, said:

"One of her proudest achievements is proving wrong those who argued that small local education authorities couldn't flourish. She believes 100 per cent in the power of education from cradle to grave and has worked every waking hour to achieve this."

Her characteristically tough - and occasionally abrasive - approach has worked because she can also say that she has spent more than 20 years teaching in London schools. After completing a history, politics and economics degree at Southampton University, she viewed teaching as one of the few options that would allow her to do something to realise her left-wing ideals.

Her first job was at Elliott school in Wandsworth where she stayed for 14 years, rising to head of history and eventually deputy head.

In 1983 she became head of Abbey Wood secondary school in Greenwich, south London, and in 1989 she was appointed the first director of Hammersmith and Fulham's education department following the break-up of the Inner London Education Authority.

John Hayes, head of the borough's Henry Compton school, which recently came out of special measures, said: "She's been a head, she's down to earth and she knows where we're coming from."

A 55-year-old married mother-of-two, who was awarded a CBE this year, she has also played her part in promoting the cause of women in education.

Chris Waterman, general secretary of the SEO, said: "She once objected to the phrase 'black tie' on our conference invitations because it only told men what to wear."

But even though Christine Whatford and the concept of retirement seem like chalk and cheese, she believes the time is right to go: "Successive governments have blown hot and cold on LEAs but I'm glad to be going at a time when the present Government seems to be committed to them."

She will be replaced by Sandy Adamson, the wily head of the pupil standards division of the Department for Education and Skills.

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