DFEE's top man is still smiling

6th April 2001 at 01:00
David Normington feels ready to lead the Department for Education and Employment, he tells Alison Brace

IF controversy has surrounded David Normington's appointment as the top civil servant at the Department for Education and Employment, he is not hinting at it.

His professional confidence, which he has quietly built up over a civil service career spanning more than a quarter of a century, is still firmly in place - as is his beaming smile, which earned him the nickname of "the smiling assassin" during his time as number two at the department.

"I'm absolutely thrilled," says Mr Normington, 49, who takes over as permanent secretary from Sir Michael Bichard on May 21. "Of course I'm a bit daunted, but I feel I have done a lot of things over the past 27 years which have prepared me for this job."

It seems that was also the opinion of Cabinet Secretary Sir Richard Wilson, who is said to have weathered Downing Street wrath by insisting that Sir Michael's deputy should get the job - and refusing to invite candidates from outside the civil service to apply for the pound;140,000-a-year post. He did, however, beat off two permanent secretaries, John Vereker from the Department for International Development and Robin Young at Culture, Media and Sport, for the job.

Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, says Mr Normington is "civilised and urbane, with a beaming smile - but underneath he's a tough nut".

As director-general of schools for the past three years, observers say he must bear some responsibility for the number of initiatives which have deluged on schools and colleges, increasing workload and red tape.

His tenure also included the DFEE's embarrassing court defeat by the National Union of Teachers, which put back performance pay reforms. The rapid rise in teacher shortages, which prompted the industrial action on cover, also seems to have caught his department unawares, prompting accusations of complacency.

But he describes the past three years of his career as his best: "In 1995, having spent 22 years with the department for employment, I was fairly devastated when suddenly we were merged with education out of the blue.

"I wondered what on earth was going to happen to me. I never expected that I would be responsible for schools and suddenly this wonderful job opened up to me."

On average, he visits a school a week during term time. This shopfloor instinct perhaps comes from his childhood in Bradford, West Yorkshire. His father worked in local government as a planner and surveyor and his mother worked as a cutter in the clothes industry.

Mr Normingtn won a scholarship to Bradford grammar, then a direct-grant school. During the summer before going up to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, to study modern history (he gained a first) he worked in a local department store selling school uniforms. "I used to tell the mums what their children really needed compared with what it said on the list."

While he enjoyed his days at Bradford grammar, he believes his key educational experience came at Wellington Road primary where the head, Jack Proctor, had a lasting influence on him. "He was committed to bringing out the best in children."

Mr Normington's current job took him back to the school, now Wellington primary, 18 months ago. Staff there had unearthed photos and the school log for the year 1959 in which the head described how the schoolboy David crowned the May Queen that year.

"I was not a political person but I was always fascinated by the political process," says Mr Normington, who describes his joining the civil service in 1973 as "not the most planned career move ever".

Mr Normington's wife, Win, also works at the DFEE. She is head of the department's European Union division. They met at the office in 1974 and, due to natural civil service caution ("we're very slow"), it took them 10 years to get married. Who's Who lists his interests as gardening, theatre, ballet and cricket but, away from the office, the Normingtons describe themselves as serious walkers.

He is expected to take on Sir Michael's mantle as an arch moderniser . Indeed, he was known among staff as Bichard's Enforcer, and has told them they must work harder and be more customer-friendly.

In an interview in People Manager, Sir Michael denied he was leaving because the pace of change was too slow: "I haven't been starved of creativity ... but I'm looking forward to working in an environment that is relaxed and even more creative,"he said of his new role as rector of the London Institute - a collection of art, design and fashion colleges.

People should stay in the civil service for five or 10 years only, he said. "There needs to be a constant refreshing of the service."

Last year he was made a Companion of the Order of Bath in the Millennium honours list. Rather appropriately he heard the news in the bath - when a reporter from his local paper rang up for his reaction.

Mr Normington's biggest challenge now, he believes, is not only to lead the department but also to gear up for a new government and ministerial team, pending the June election.

"The one thing I will keep doing is getting out and meeting people," he says. "I want the department to be listening."

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