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Private time for a Newham whizzkid

His work in councils won fans at the DFEE, before he defected to an education company. But, says Ian Harrison, that won't stop him playing a big role for schools. Fran Abrams reports

IAN Harrison is sitting at right-angles to the table in a room next to his office, apparently staring at a speck on the carpet. Darling of the New Labour educational establishment he may be, but this is not a man who has had the Millbank makeover.

His Yorkshire voice is so subdued as to be sometimes inaudible and he answers questions in clipped sentences. What did he make of his teaching practice at Islington Green comprehensive 20 years ago? "It was difficult." In what way? "It was hard work." But despite his reticence, it is hard to find anyone in education who is not a fan of Ian Harrison.

David Blunkett's senior adviser, Professor Michael Barber, described Newham during his eight years as director of education there as "world-class". The then chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, agreed that the London borough was "doing an excellent job in the most difficult circumstances".

He has now left Newham with his deputy Parin Bahl to set up a new public-private venture but insists he has not abandoned local government. In fact, his move to the offices of Capita plc, a private consultancy which works with 150 local education authorities, is an attempt to offer expert support.

His new Strategic Education Service will act in partnership with local authorities not compete with them, he adds. Last year, Mr Harrison suggested a similar venture to the DFEE - without success. So he took the idea to Capita, which set up the team including three former LEA directors, one HMI and a DFEEadviser.

Already, SES, which will work in partnership with the Local Governmen Association, has been selected to help run the company that will control education services in Leeds and is bidding for other contracts.

Mr Harrison, 44, is not someone who lets the grass grow under his feet. Between 1980 and 1992, when he was appointed director in Newham, he rocketed up the ranks through through six posts, cramming in a diploma in management.

Even in 1980 when he arrived at Abbotsfield secondary in Hillingdon, west London, as a new history and economics teacher, he had his eye on higher things. After grammar school in Skipton, North Yorkshire, he read PPE at Oxford, before going into teaching "thinking I might go on to do something else".

Jim Cook, now deputy head at Abbotsfield, remembers "a bright-eyed, blond-haired young man" of principle, "who tried to grow a wispy beard but failed". "He was far more concerned with why the First World War started and how we could have stopped it than he was with teaching the kids about it," Mr Cook said.

He adds, though, that Mr Harrison's lofty aims went with an ability to get on with staff and pupils alike.

Mr Harrison was active in the Labour club at Oxford and was a councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham between 1982 and 1990.

Graham Lane, the Local Government Association education chair and education cabinet member in Newham, says Mr Harrison "started off to the left of me and finished up to the right of me".

"The DFEE see him as a real whizzkid, which he is. I think they'd appoint him to almost anything."

But perhaps the highest accolade comes from Mike Leaman, head of Eleanor Smith primary special school in Newham: "He was hard-working, methodical and articulate, always willing to listen to another point of view. We were sorry to see him go."

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