A PICTURE OF a nun swinging a hula-hoop around her hips, watched in earnest by a semi-circle of sisters sits on Oona Stannard's mantelpiece.
It is from a former colleague at Her Majesty's Inspectorate and joins the rest of the cards wishing her luck in her new job as director of the Catholic Education Service.
A number of her workmates were surprised at the move. "One said he hadn't even realised I was a Catholic," she says. "And when I said to him, 'Didn't you know I am an ex-nun?', he replied, 'Oh, that explains why you always dress in black'."
Mrs Stannard is joking. After attending a Church of England primary and the Catholic Sacred Heart high, in Hammersmith, west London - recently made famous as the choice of the Blairs for their daughter - she became a teacher before spending 10 years as an inspector.
From the window of her new office in Victoria she can see Pimlico school, where she once taught.
A pile of boxes sits on the floor, unpacked, and she admits despair at her office which, without a computer, has not made it to the 20th century, never mind the 21st.
"It's a listed building and we're going to have to raise the floor to put any electronics in. I can't decide whether to get myself tooled up first or just concentrate on all the responses to consultations that are pending," she says.
She admits to making a cautious start. The service, she explains, is an agency of the Bishops' Conference, and also has a new chairman, Bishop Vincent Nichols (see below).
Its role is to promote the bishops' policies, give advice to the conference and act as a lobbying organisation. Although the country's 2,500 Catholic schools are run by individual dioceses, the service also represents employers' interests in these schools.
The service also influences legislation and has representatives on Department for Education and Employment working groups.
It often bats on the same side as the Church of England. Together they are responsible for providing a third of the country's schools and, as was seen during the passage of the School Standards and Framework Act, can be an effective lobby.
More recently they joined to condemn the review of the national curriculum, which they said neglected pupils' spiritual and moral education, and won major concessions.
Mrs Stannard takes over from the highly respected Margaret Smart, who retired during the summer. The Rev Canon John Hall, general secretary of the Church of England's education board, says: "Margaret always acted with enormous grace and charm. But she was also very clear and focused about what she wanted to achieve. She brought with her the wisdom of her experience and I was very impressed and delighted to work with her."
She did have her detractors. Pauline Latham, as chairman of the Grant Maintained Schools Advisory Committee, recalls the churches' antipathy to opting out. She says: "Margaret was a very determined lady and we didn't see eye to eye on almost anything. At the end of GM, she wanted the Catholic GM schools back under diocesan control and frightened them into becoming aided rather than foundation schools."
This may be an old battle, but Mrs Stannard is aware there will be other times when the Catholic interest will not always be in step with government policy.
She says the aim is to act in partnership with the Government and other schools.
"But we will always be looking for fairness and equity within the system and will look at the morality of situations as they arise."
With her employer's hat, she will be responding to the Green Paper reforms of the teaching profession. One influence on her may be the late Cardinal Basil Hume, who said a teacher's success could not be measured by pupil test scores. "What matters much more is the impact the teacher has on the child as a whole," he told a conference of Christian church leaders in March.
Mrs Stannard brings with her a vast fund of experience as an inspector and has published research on gender and on single-sex schools. Her last task was acting as an inspector of local education authorities. She also worked closely with ministers and officials advising on school reorganisations.
Roman Catholic schools may enjoy a reputation for academic achievement, but Mrs Stannard says: "My job isn't to say Catholic schools are better than others. Some are at the top of the league tables, but others do not do so well.
"Our aim is to provide an ethos that looks at the development of the whole person."
Improving recruitment to the sector will be a major task. She believes the fact that the National Professional Qualification for Headship does not include a section on the distinctiveness of running a Catholic school is a grave omission.
"While non-Catholics do contribute to the success of our schools, it is essential to have good, practising Catholics to provide a spiritual leadership," she says.
Catholic schools 1998
The Catholic Church ran 1,845 state primaries, 396 state secondaries and 177 independent schools in England and Wales.
The total number of Catholic schools fell slightly from 2,526 in 1992 to 2,418, mirroring a similar contraction in other sectors.
It educated 9.6 per cent of the school population (794,007 pupils) and employed 10.3 per cent of teachers (38,166). There are about 4.2 million Catholics in England and Wales (7.9 per cent of the population).
70 per cent of the Church's teaching force and 83 per cent of its pupils are Catholic.
The number of nuns teaching in Catholic schools declined from 772 in 1992 to 336. The number of monks has fallen from 190 to 135, while the number of teaching priests has fallen by one to 19. The proportion of lay Catholics teachers has remained constant.
Worldwide, the Catholic Church educates 44.5 million
children in 179,578 schools.
Sources: Catholic Education Service and Catholic Media Office