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A passionate moderate;Interview;David Mallen;People

David Mallen is a principled man with a "non-traditional" background. The new Association of Chief Education Officers chairman talks to Karen Thornton

David Mallen celebrated his 59th birthday last week and retires as chief education officer of East Sussex next May. But he has no plans to start taking life easy just yet.

His fellow CEOs have great hopes for him, as the new chairman of their association. One described him as a "principled political operator, sharp, intelligent, who knows what the business is about".

Whether it was politic to call last week for the departure of Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, just when his agency is really starting to focus on education authorities, remains to be seen.

But principles probably had more to do with it than politics. The last boss of the Inner London Education Authority wants to spend his ACEO chairmanship year putting local government at the centre of the Government's standards-raising agenda.

And Mr Woodhead, with his suggestion that local education authorities should not be involved with most schools, is, he believes, out to undermine them - "us".

"I don't have any problems with government setting agendas, but I think there is a real role for people who know localities - both the locally elected and officers - to feed into how we achieve government objectives," Mr Mallen says.

"It's a very exciting time for education and an interesting time for those of us involved in education management. The issue for me is how we are able to maximise any experience and expertise we have for the benefit of schools.

"That's what I hope to spend the year doing: arguing the case for local authorities and showing how we can contribute to this agenda we all agree with."

One of nine siblings from a working-class Yorkshire family (he himself has five children),he left school at 16 for a three-year apprenticeship in a Rotherham steelworks. He studied forA-levels on day release and spent his spare time in the local library.

"My father's health wasn't good. He had been a prisoner of war for four years. He started to deteriorate in my early teens. That's why I left school - we needed the money, simple as that," he says.

Mr Mallen went on to read politics and economics at Manchester University, becoming president of the students' union and an executive member of the National Union of Students. Then he taught for six years, first in a secondary modern in Salford, and later at a grammar school in Rochdale, before taking up his first administrative post, with East Sussex.

His "non-traditional" educational experiences have inevitably shaped his outlook. If there is money for student awards, he argues, it should go to 16-year-olds -to persuade working-class children to remain in education.

"I care passionately about disadvantage and that education is the way to help people to make something of their lives. We therefore have a duty to do the best we can and not to write anybody off."

Mr Mallen is remembered by colleagues from his Coventry days (1972-79) for his work on community education and early youth training schemes, while at his next authority - the doomed ILEA - he latterly took on the CEO's job with a promise to see the authority out to its bitter end.

"I said if they were going to do a GLC and carry on fighting and opposing, they ought to appoint someone else. As far as I was concerned, the decision had been taken. I didn't like it, but we owed it to the kids to work constructively with the boroughs and ensure a clean transition."

He still believes the dismantling of the ILEA was an "entirely wrong decision", not just for London but for the country too: "The ILEA had a national role in leading curriculum development and so on".

But trying to reconstruct it now would not work either, he feels. Nor is it likely to become an issue again, even if a new London-wide authority is elected. It would also go against his wife Eimear's advice of not going back on yourself - advice he is glad he ignored when it came to his return to East Sussex as CEO after the ILEA's demise in 1990.

"It was a bit of a fancy. I hadn't any really serious intention of applying. But when the job description came, it was what I do and am quite good at, and I applied and got it," he says.

"Quite good" is not how onecolleague describes him. "He really was held in the highest regard by everybody in the education service in Coventry - councillors, education officers, headteachers," says Andrew Baxter, then an education welfare officer and now Cambridgeshire's CEO.

"I was impressed by his remarkable command of education policy and law. He is intelligent and well-informed, but with a very modest, informal style, so he doesn't intimidate people without the same abilities, allowing them the confidence to have their say.

"He will be a good ACEO chair for the same reasons he is a good education officer. He has a very good command of professional interests and very well developed personal skills. He's earned a leadership position through his effectiveness in the role."

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