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No plan, just lucky breaks

Where did you start?

I've never had a career plan and have an unconventional background for this job. Most chief executives are lawyers or accountants. It feels like all my jobs have been enormous lucky breaks.

I read history at St Andrews, did a postgraduate course in Canada and then started lecturing in further and higher education. My first lucky break was when I was appointed by the Inner London Education Authority as one of its first community education workers. The idea was to give the working classes access to adult education. It was a tremendously mind-broadening experience and a very political job. Then I had various management experiences in adult education, and in 1985 became an inspector of further and higher education for ILEA. It was leading-edge stuff in those days and is sadly now all gone.

After the abolition of ILEA I advised the new borough of Lewisham on setting up an education authority. It was absolutely chaotic, me and one other person with papers all over the floor producing a development plan and setting up a new service with a budget of over #163;100 million. When the director's job came up it was suggested that I apply for it. I did that job for seven years and was thinking it was time to leave when I got a phone call about my current job.

What would you do differently given a second chance?

I would like to have gone on stage at the National Theatre and delighted people. In management jobs you do not distribute much pleasure.

What is the most important aspect of your job?

Supporting the politicians to enable their aspirations for the community to be met; leading and motivating staff to be more responsive and perform better; and developing partnerships and networking with the innumerable other players for the good of the community, because we are no longer the only provider.

What do you enjoy about your job?

The variety. I like being involved in this place, working in teams trying to change something big. I've always enjoyed policy work and writing, and I love to see staff growing and becoming more competent.

What don't you enjoy?

I get lonely at times. I'm constrained by the hierarchy and feel shut in my office. I also dislike crisis management, but I'm frequently called in to sort things out. I'm always ashamed when things go wrong; it's so wasteful.

What's the most difficult thing you have to do?

I sometimes feel I should be more decisive when I see something I think is wrong, but I have a horror of being unfair so I hold back. I malfunction when I get tired.

What was different from what you expected?

The old-fashion ed bureaucracy I have encountered that needs to change.

Who or what inspired youinfluenced your approach?

David Hargreaves changed my life when he was chief inspector of the Inner London Education Authority. He is such a stimulating person to work for and he was responsible for bringing the issue of quality and standards into the debate. This focus on quality is still totally relevant for me even though I am no longer in education. During the same time I met Peter Mortimore, whom I greatly admire for the quality of his academic work, and he is simply one of the nicest people I have ever met. Since our first meeting he has always been encouraging and supportive, and he still is.

I've inherited my mother's ambition, energy and determination. At the age of 90 she still has plenty of it and sometimes outstrips me. Terry Cooper and Jenner Roth, psychotherapists who run Spectrum, a centre for humanist psychology, educated me emotionally and taught me how to be grown up.

What keeps you sane?

My family and close friends. I'm a great reader and enjoy walking, and being in the mountains.

Who are your heroes?

People who offer an incisive social analysis of their times, such as Charles Dickens, R H Tawney. It's sadly lacking today.

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