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'Smiling assassin' reaps his reward

DfES chief David Normington has to take the knife to his department, but at least he has a knighthood to cheer him up. Hilary Wilce reports

When David Normington, head of the Department for Education and Skills, was made a knight on Wednesday, watched by his proud mother, wife and sister, he was probably feeling more than a little overcome. "I've met the Queen once before and I think the minute you come face-to-face with her, whatever you think of the whole thing, it is always a slightly heart-stopping moment."

He was awarded the knighthood, he says, for 32 years of loyal civil-servanting, the last eight in education. There he first ran the schools division, and then, nearly four years ago, became permanent secretary, the top man. He was also rewarded for his contribution to an improving education system. "I don't take the credit for that, obviously, but I do for part of it."

Notice the qualifiers and sub-clauses. David Normington, 53, might be relaxed and approachable, he might be an ordinary lad from Wellington Road primary, Bradford, made good by doing brilliantly at Oxford, but he is, more than anything, the consummate civil servant, weighing words cautiously and directing attention where he wants it to go.

He might, indeed has, danced a samba through the atrium of Sanctuary Buildings to raise money on Red Nose Day ("Quite a lot of money, actually"); but he would probably never kick off his shoes, have a few too many glasses of Chardonnay, and let drop some juicy indiscretions.

Instead, he talks about the pleasure in seeing standards rise, particularly in tough areas, and in the way he has got his people out into schools, and headteachers back through the doors of the DfES. "I know we sometimes seem very bureaucratic, and if you are on the receiving end you are rather overwhelmed, but I do find more people feeling encouraged than I did eight years ago -although I suppose I couldn't do my job if I wasn't an optimist."

Yet even he found it hard to be an optimist in the dark days of 2002, when the fiasco of A-level grades broke over his head, Estelle Morris resigned as education secretary ("I don't think it was inevitable. I still look back and wonder why it happened"). He also had to appear before the public accounts committee and admit shame for another education fiasco: the way tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money had leaked away to fraudsters under the mismanaged individual learning accounts scheme.

Although, remember, he says, that that problem pre-dated his appointment.

And that everyone has crises.

"The important thing is how you learn from them. With the A-level crisis, it seemed to be running away with us, we knew we had to stabilise the situation, and it actually stabilised fast, but that fortnight was a difficult period, so I did sometimes lie awake at night. But I suppose what I learned was: don't lie awake. You can come through these patches."

Years ago he was dubbed "the smiling assassin" for his work as the enforcer for his predecessor, Michael Bichard, and the tag is still perfect. His smile is wider than Whitehall, even though his current big job is to take the knife to his department, whittle it down by a third and reshape it into the streamlined, look-no-red-tape office to reflect the new enthusiasm for pared-down government.

Some critics say that as head of the schools division he was directly responsible for much of the flood of initiatives that started to drown schools. If so, those days are history. Now he is an enthusiast for how schools will benefit from the new hands-off department. "We will trust schools more. We will expect them to deliver their improvements in standards, but we will tell them less what to do."

He also wears recent bad-news headlines lightly. The latest Office for Standards in Education report actually showed that most schools were doing well, he says. "David Bell (the chief inspector) chose to draw out the negative, which was annoying for me, and annoying for schools."

As for the multi-million pound failure to reduce truancy: "It has not got significantly worse. It only shows it is one of the more intractable problems we face."

The bigger question is the "low-level disruption" in classrooms highlighted by Ruth Kelly, the third education secretary to move into post while he has been minding the office. "It's something to do with what is happening in families, in society, and it's difficult to deal with. We are swimming against the tide, and it's very worrying."

Could it be true, as some colleagues claim, that he is so eager to do his master's bidding that he is "Sir Humphrey without the irony"? Unfair, say others. He is only like anyone in his kind of job, judiciously attuned to the way the wind is blowing.

And his charm and openness have won him champions at the chalkface. Brian Rossiter, head of Valley school, Worksop, where David Normington once spent two instructive days, has kept in touch ever since. Mr Rossiter says: "I was with him only yesterday. He's very incisive, very intelligent and his agenda for raising standards and improving the service is the same as the schools' agenda. The department listens more, it's more collaborative, and, yes, you can now see evidence of change because of what heads say."

David Normington returns the compliment. He would, he says, find it hard to justify why he should have a knighthood for his work and not a stressed-out, inner-city teacher for theirs. "I'd probably point out that I didn't ask for it. But there are lots and lots of people doing wonderful things and not getting the recognition.

"One thing I would say about teaching is that when it goes well, you do see an immediate reward - I don't always get that kind of reward in my job."


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