A man most likely to...

12th May 2000 at 01:00
Karen Thornton meets David Bell, an ex-teacher who now heads a local authority.

THE TES tipped him as a potential chief executive of the General Teaching Council. There was probably money riding on him heading up the new leadership college too.

But instead David Bell, the youngest chief education officer when he took over at Newcastle-upon-Tyne nearly five years ago, has secured the chief executive's job at Bedfordshire.

Now a greying 41, and officially the youngest county chief executive, he says being shortlisted by The TES for the GTC job "caused me great embarrassment".

"It was an important time for me. I had been chief education officer at Newcastle for five years. One option was to go for another director's job, but I'd done that and I quite like doing other things.

"One was to go for national education jobs, and there's been quite a few about. The third was to go for a chief executive's job in local government.

"My preference came down to the latter as I like an association with a particular community."

A former primary teacher and head with sound New Labour connections, he waxes lyrical about the crossroads facing local government. The sector should be carving out a role for itself, not "whingeing from the sidelines," he says. "There is apocalyptic talk about the future, but I think it's more open. What's the future relationship going to be between national government, local government, and individual institutions? Education is rightly a concern of central government, but we have to relate that to the autonomy required at school level and the local flavour in the way local authorities can work positively with schools.

"The trick for government is going to be:when do you loosen the reins? The concern I would have is that national government gets the taste for centralisation.

"Leadership is his other key theme - particularly the problems facing both the public and private sectors in finding enough of it, and how the "hassle" factor deters mny from taking it on.

But he remains the diplomat, and won't be drawn - even from the safety of a chief executive's post - into serious criticisms of the sector he's left behind.

He says he feels no pull back to his native Scotland - he was educated at Glasgow University and Jordanhill College, and started teaching north of the border before moving to Essex for a deputy head's post in his mid-20s. But he retains his passion for Scottish dancing - as relaxation, and hobby - and has already found a local group to join. People who "live for their jobs" worry him.

Meanwhile, only a few weeks into his new job, he's still the "new kid on the block," learning the ropes and pursuing the "walkabout" style he favoured as an education director. So far he's visited trading standards, rights of way, landfill, library services, and a few schools.

Bedfordshire - especially since the removal of its urban centre, Luton, under local government reorganisation - is quite different to Newcastle. Levels of deprivation and unemployment are generally lower and educational standards higher.

Pass rates for five A* to C grade GCSEs were just below the English average last year, at 47.2 per cent. Newcastle's children could manage only a 33.6 per cent pass rate on that measure, similar to Luton's 35.8.

Mr Bell says: "It's been an interesting transition from director to chief executive. It's been strange giving up a service responsibility, and - education being the job it is - there's never a dull moment. But equally, the variety (of the corporate role) has been fantastic."

And he says: "I'm still relatively young. There's still the opportunity in the future, if it comes up, of a job in education on the national stage. But it seemed so much more sensible to choose a local government job."

The bets, it seems, may be back on - one day.

TES MAY 12 2000 32 Briefing JACKY CHAPMAN 'The sector should be carving out a role for itself

not whingeing from the sidelines'

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