Fluent in the language of leadership

21st September 2001 at 01:00
Dick Bunker prefers to let his authority's results do the talking. He speaks to Neil Levis

When Dick Bunker retires next May, there could hardly be a a better testimony to a distinguished career in educational administration than the verdict Ofsted gave last June. There it was on page one. "The director of education provides very good leadership and sets the tone and pace of development. His leadership is underpinned by strong educational values and is in the best traditions of public service."

And yet his first day in office did not start auspiciously: after five years as deputy and then acting director, on the day in 1985 that he offically took over as No 1, the teachers were on strike over pay and conditions. It was a national strike, nothing personal, but it could have unnerved a less accomplished operator.

But then you get the impression that Dick Bunker has risen to prominence because he is a man who knows how to handle people, who knows what to delegate and when. He is also a man of great enthusiasms so that he engages others in the great sweep of educational passion that drives him and his authority on. "A key function of my job is to develop good relationships with those who can provide opportunities for young people," he says.

So he sets out to exploit all the advantages of the area. Thus, one day he might be off to call on the Duke of Richmond at Goodwood House, next to the racecourse to ask for some money for one project or help with another. Another day he might be off to enlist BA or Europ Assist into organising an open day for which the company might provide materials for pupils to enjoy a really challenging time at a one-off event.

He delights in describing the richness of resources available: the extensive art collection at Petworth House, the sailing centre at Cobnor, the Roman palace at Fishbourne, the local stately homes - anything that might enrich the curriculum and bring history and understanding to life.

Bunker is a linguist first and foremost, a love he shares with his wife, Jenny, who retired two years ago from teaching languages at Chichester High School for Girls. They have two grown-up sons.

After a degree in French and German at Oxford, he worked for IBM - in personnel, naturally - at a packaging plant in Purfleet in Essex. But he decided it was not for him. He took a PGCE at Nottingham, taught for a few years in Hertfordshire and London, and then applied for his first job in educational administration at Hillingdon, where he had grown up.

His immediate preoccupation was with special education, and he is proud of what was achieved in transferring children with severe learning difficulties from the training centres - in those days they were deemed ineducable - into special schools.

"It was a really moving experience - difficult, dedicated work - but we produced a new school that acted as a model for others. It was a real achievement," he says.

After a spell with Bedfordshire, he joined West Sussex as deputy in 1980 and took over as director five years later.

So what is the secret of the success story there? After all, a relatively privileged position is not a guarantee of high standards.

Certainly, Bunker has never adopted a command-and-control approach to running schools services - and that put him ahead of the game as local authorities moved in the 1990s towards being providers, more facilitators than bosses.

"It's not my style to be telling people what to do," he says. "If you give people freedom, you can achieve much more. Education is too big and diverse for one person to try to control it. Education is about development, creating opportunities and providing encouragement and support."

But, equally, he stresses that West Sussex is not a soft option for schools. He talks of an iron fist in a velvet glove. The maxim is challenge and support.

"It's all about good relationships and controlling schools with rigour and challenge. Without that good relationship, you lose the scope for challenge. It makes more sense for organisations to have a high degree of trust."

Clearly, he believes that local education authorities have a real role to play and that reports of their likely demise are misguided.

"It is no solution to set all schools free and hope the market will sort it out," he says. "That will only take you so far. Without a common structure and values, it would be chaos."

One of the most influential roles an authority plays is in the appointment of headteachers. West Sussex simply refuses to appoint if it does not attract a strong enough field. Bunker oversees every secondary appointment and Ken Pritchard, his chief adviser, covers primary schools. "Everything hinges on the quality of the people you've got. We'd prefer to put in a temporary head - usually one of our link advisers - than take on the wrong person. That way we get the right candidate." The same modus operandi applies to appointments of officers within the authority.

Bunker is not frightened, either, to put his hand up when he makes a mistake. For instance, the decision some years ago to close canteens in primary schools so that younger children were denied hot meals caused a good deal of controversy. Many kitchens had needed reinvestment, the mood of the times was that outside firms would be more efficient, and the space released could be used to provide computer suites. Typically, Bunker insisted that his two sons ate school dinners throughout the debacle.

"It's a fair cop," he says. "We painted ourselves into a corner. But, thankfully, the meals today are probably of better quality than before. And privately many heads are grateful for the computers."

His other big regret is that he could never persuade his political masters to commit money to early-years education. They took pride in keeping the council tax low and relied on the private and voluntary sectors to cover. The deficiency, he feels, has held back standards; its correction could be the key to future improvements.

Bunker is also a man of modesty and sensitivity. He was always anxious during the course of our various meetings to ensure that he did not give any impression of smugness or self-satisfaction. Far from it. His seriousness of purpose and dedication to the job come across very strongly - exactly as Ofsted put it.

"I thoroughly enjoy what I do," he says. "I think I've got the best job in the world. I feel very privileged."

When his retirement comes, he will not be short of things to do. Indeed, he is already tied up with many things outside the day job, and these will continue: sitting on the local learning and skills council, promoting Cilt, the organisation for languages teaching, sitting as a governor of University College, Chichester, and promoting Chichester's new planetarium, which is scheduled to open in October.

And, of course, there's also Italian to which he wants to apply himself more seriously in the future. Que bella vita.

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