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A novel twist in the Dales

Cynthia Welbourn, North Yorkshire's education director, revered for her brain power, is the new voice for local authorities. Philippa White reports

Not every education director can boast of a credit in a best-seller.

But Cynthia Welbourn has spent the past 24 years running education in North Yorkshire, home territory of schools inspector-turned-author Gervase Phinn.

His first book about rural school life, The Other Side of the Dale, pays tribute to Miss Welbourn's support. From today, this support will be available to all local authority officers, managers and advisers as she takes on the presidency of ConfEd, their professional body.

Colleagues talk of her sometimes fearsome brain power, and say she will bring an intellectual rigour to ConfEd as it tries to influence the future of LEAs.

"She cuts to the chase in meetings. You don't get any sloppy thinking past her," said one Conf Ed staffer. A long-standing North Yorkshire head agreed: "I wouldn't like to be on the losing side of an argument with her but she's rarely wrong."

Friends also speak of her patience, her calmness and her enormous commitment to the children of North Yorkshire, geographically the largest English education authority. She is a stayer rather than a greasy-pole climber, they say, and ConfEd is lucky to have tempted her out of the North, although her new duties will be carried out on top of her current job.

Miss Welbourn admits she is attracted by the intellectual challenge of the presidency and the need to "contribute well to complex discussions about complex change", including those heralded by the children's Green Paper.

She welcomes the idea of different agencies working together more closely to protect vulnerable children, but says the mandatory director of children's services must have flexibility to adapt to situations.

"The role of a children's officer can be delivered in different ways in different places. It doesn't need to be just one model," she said.

She says her broad experience will help her represent a wide range of ConfEd members. Over the years she has run secondary, primary and special education, school buildings, planning, budgets, strategic planning and school improvement.

Miss Welbourn was born in the Lincolnshire village of North Hykeham and went to the local grammar school. She was the first in her family to go to university and took an English degree at Sussex followed by a masters in Victorian literature.

After working part time in careers advice and adult education, she joined North Yorkshire education authority at the age of 28. "I remember thinking it looked a responsible, interesting area of work done by people who were obviously people of quality," she says.

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