Passionate about leadership

Warwick Mansell finds the new chairman of the School Teachers'Review Body has strongly-held views about his new post.

THE new chairman of the School Teachers' Review Body is a businessman who abhors centralisation and believes passionately in the power of good leadership.

Strongly-held views might help Bill Cockburn as he takes over in one of the lowest-profile, yet most important, jobs in education.

As The TES met the affable Scot at the London offices of one of the several businesses he is involved with earlier this week, the word "colossal" kept tripping off his tongue as he sought to explain the responsibility of the role.

By Wednesday morning, as Radio 4's Today programme led on the story that his first task would be to consider the merit of giving more than 400,000 teachers a three-year pay deal, the point had been truly rammed home.

But, after confessing to being surprised at being approached by former schools minister Stephen Timms to take over from Sir Tony Vineall for the post, he appeared to be unfazed by the new position.

Mr Cockburn, 59 and the eldest of eight children, who comes from a non-education background as former chairman of British Telecom and WH Smith and chief executive of the Post Office, has been reading himself into the post since being appointed by Tony Blair in April. He is reluctant to commit himself on detail but is effusive on conceptual matters such as giving all employees freedom from central control.

He said: "The Kremlin never did work. You have to choose between a highly-centralised, Kremlin-like structure, or a more decentralised system. The latter is the model of how it works in business, and it's one I strongly believe in.

"I think one needs to move away from a culture of dependency, where everything is prescribed from the centre, down to the more independent end of the spectrum."

This chimes with the rhetoric of ministers keen to talk up school autonomy and would appear to dovetail with the Government's moves to give headteachers the freedom to boost teachers' pay to attract good staff.

On the pay scale itself, he said: "There's no shortage of flexibility, and maybe what one needs to do is to check to see if it's working. I expect that people will be queuing up to offer me their views about that."

He is the son of a hospital porter, who left Holycross Academy, a Catholic high school in Edinburgh, at 18 to join the Post Office to begin a vertiginous rise through the corporate ranks.

And he believes his experience at the head of some of the country's largest employers - the Post Office employed 200,000 staff - gives him appropriate experience, despite a non-education background. Married with two grown-up daughters, he will combine the unpaid post with non-executive positions at two companies and is president of the Institute of Direct Marketing.

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