'KGB' squares up to the bruiser

29th November 2002 at 00:00
The new head of Britain's exam watchdog could be a worthy opponent for Charles Clarke. Julie Henry reports.

THE straight-talking Australian brought in to rescue the Government's exam watchdog could be more than a match for the Education Secretary Charles Clarke.

While the former has been branded a "bruiser", in Dr Ken Boston's home territory of New South Wales, he was known as "KGB" (his middle name is George).

He may be congenial and open but his staunch defence of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in the first few days of the A-level furore, when he was just days into the job, shows the rough and tumble holds no fears for him.

Dr Boston joined the troubled regulator after five years as the head of the New South Wales education department, the largest school district in Australia and the country's largest employer. Before that, he was director general of education in South Victoria and general manager of education policy in Victoria.

He began his education career in Victoria in 1964, where he was a high-school teacher and a lecturer in teacher education.

Australian teachers' leaders describe him as "someone who calls a spade a spade". A less flattering description given by one teacher who worked on a committee with him was "overbearing".

Indeed, his relationship with the teaching profession has sometimes been rocky. Three years ago, he accused teachers in New South Wales of being greedy during a pay dispute. They immediately went on strike. Some 20,000 teachers held a rally calling for his sacking.

But he later won support from the unions when he opposed proposals for asylum seekers' children to be educated in centres rather than mainstream schools.

His initial statements here about the A-level grading furore seemed to point the finger of blame at teachers, although he subsequently played down his criticism.

He was described by Robin Shreeve, the deputy director of Training and Further Education New South Wales (TAFE NSW), as "a courageous captain in the odd war". The 60-year-old is a tough taskmaster. A year into his reign in New South Wales, he published a manual for his senior staff called "Owning and Operating a Director-General". In it, he told staff that "to ensure the equanimity of your Director-General, there is no choice but to meet all deadlines: not 60 per cent of them, or 90 per cent of them, but all of them all of the time."

He is equally rigorous with his own time. He is an avid reader and whatever the pressures on him, he will pick up a book unconnected with education and read for at least an hour a day: "Dead authors usually. . . because their works have lasted the distance." At present, however, he is reading A N Wilson's The Victorians.

The pound;120,000-a-year chief executive's record in vocational education was one of his main selling points. Boosting work-related learning is at the heart of the Government's proposals to overhaul secondary education. He introduced a new framework combining academic and vocational qualifications in Australia, similar to the one envisaged for England.

But the Government's 14 to 19 agenda has been overshadowed by the collapse of confidence in the examination system. Restoring that faith is Dr Boston's immediate challenge. Most commentators believe that it could be done more effectively if the regulator was seen to be independent of Government influence.

Dr Boston is less concerned about who the QCA reports to. He is unlikely to heed the warning given to one of his predecessors, Nicholas Tate, that speaking out against Government policy can "blot your copybook". He said:"It has been made clear to me by Estelle Morris, Charles Clarke and David Miliband that we are independent. I have every confidence that I will be supported by the Government in giving them frank and fearless advice."

When asked once about the autonomy of TAFE NSW, he said: "As managing director, I intend to manage and I intend to direct."

This week, he was characteristically robust in his reaction to a newspaper report that his department in New South Wales was the subject of a public inquiry into the cover-up of activities into dangerous sex offenders.

"There had been a culture over many, many years of not dealing with paedophilia. I was recognised in New South Wales for being the one education bureaucrat who brought about reform in this issue. We moved very quickly once all this was exposed," he said.

His view of state education does not necessarily correspond with that of New Labour.

In a speech on school funding, he said: "Public (state) schooling is of a profoundly different order from public transport and public housing, which could, under given circumstances, be provided by the private sector without detriment to the fabric of the nation. The same is not true of public (state) schooling."

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