Carol White, new chief education officer for Calderdale, convinces Karen Thornton her career move was not as mad as it sounds
Calderdale. Even now, the word conjures up images of The Ridings school out of control and besieged by the media, with an anachronistic education authority under threat of a Department for Education and Employment hit squad.
The Ridings turned itself around and special measures ended last year. But the education authority still has much to prove when the Office for Standards in Education inspectors return early this summer.
So who would be mad enough to want to take charge of an education authority described last year by its own external advisers as lacking vision and direction, badly managed, unresponsive to schools, distrusted by them, and riven by mistrust between councillors and officers?
"Most people I know think I'm certifiably insane," says Carol White, Calderdale's new chief education officer.
"All of us who were shortlisted for the job were joking about being the shortest-lived education director anywhere. But the closer I got to it, the more I realised that the will and all the ingredients were there, not just to address Calderdale's particular issues but to turn this into an exciting, dynamic education community."
Carol White - 47, tall, imposing, courteous, well-travelled, the mother of a 17-year-old son, owner of two cats, and a fan of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels - has only been in post a matter of weeks. But she has already made a good impression.
"She's clearly a very able and very professional lady, and she's very articulate. She also listens well. She's got a really excellent grasp of all the main educational issues. She's got as good a chance as anybody to sort out Calder-dale's problems," says David Scott, headteacher of Calder high school in Mytholmroyd.
But he adds: "She won't do it on her own. I hope she gets the kind of support she needs from the whole community."
Carol White arrived in Calderdale from her birthplace in Retford, near Nottingham, by a circuitous route. Family moves meant her primary and secondary years were spent in Hertfordshire, and she did her sixth form studies in Essex.
Her father was the first in her family to go to university, as a mature student.
"My parents valued education enormously. My mother left school at 14, because of family circumstances. She is a very able woman and was always quietly determined that her daughter would get the same opportunities as her son," says Ms White.
She read history at Bristol and took her PGCE at Oxford. Her first teaching job was in a girls' grammar school in Manchester, but her husband's wanderlust took the family overseas - first to Ireland, then in 1977 to Tehran.
In Iran, she ran a personnel agency before teaching again - English and history - in an international school. When revolution came, she escaped to Hong Kong, working in an English school for expatriates and became head of the sixth form, as well as studying for her masters degree.
She returned to the UK in 1986. Two years later, when her husband's job took him to Switzerland, she decided to put her own career first and stay. They divorced in 1990.
One of her first jobs, as head of humanities, was at Garth Hill school in Bracknell, Berkshire, threatened at that time with closure. Stanley Goodchild, her new headteacher, is now head of 3E's, the commercial arm of a Birmingham CTC recently awarded the contract to run the failing King's Manor School, Guildford. He remembers an innovative, energetic and flexible thinker able to get on well with others.
"I needed catalysts able to spark developments within the school as a whole, and not just in their own areas. Carol was one of those people," he says.
At Garth Hill, she was appointed to the national curriculum working group on history. She says the insights she gained triggered a change in her career.
In 1990, she took up a history adviser's post in the then Humberside education authority, and in April 1996, when four new unitary authorities were carved out of Humberside, she moved to the East Riding of Yorkshire as assistant director in charge of curriculum quality and development.
She describes the transition to unitary status as difficult and badly handled, but also an opportunity to do something different. Calderdale, she feels, has a similar chance of a fresh start.
But Carol White is the first to admit Calderdale has a long way to go. Special educational needs and behaviour support are not working. Relationships with schools need to be improved. There is a dearth of management information within the department, which is seen as remote from the council as a whole.
Most importantly, the service needs a vision, direction, and an advocate. That's the answer she got when she asked headteachers at her interview what they wanted from their new CEO.
"They said they wanted someone to act as an advocate, to celebrate good news. Although they have rightly been critical of the way they have been treated in the past by the education authority, the esteem of the whole education community has suffered from what has been written about Calderdale in the local press. They desperately want, as a community, to raise their heads."
She hopes when the inspectors return in May or June they will acknowledge the changes in internal attitudes and the determination to get things right.
"Members have responded to the criticisms, schools have been extremely receptive, and departmental colleagues have been incredibly supportive," she says.
"There are still administrative and organisational weaknesses. But this is not the failing LEA of England. It is not a sink authority."