Laughter under enemy fire;Briefing;Profile;Interview;Chris Waterman

29th October 1999 at 01:00
As local education authorities take flak from all sides, now might not be such a good time to become head of the Society of Education Officers, but as Chris Waterman explains to George Low he's not pessimistic

"ISN'T HE a bit young to be thinking of retiring?" was one uncharitable, but not untypical, reaction to Chris Waterman's appointment last week as the first full-time general secretary of the Society of Education Officers.

For the post has traditionally been a pre-retirement part-time post for many a distinguished chief education officer - most recently the amiable former CEO of Lancashire, Andrew Collier, who finishes his four-year stint at the end of the year.

At 51 Waterman is still in mid-career and does not see his latest move as a seat on the porch with old friends watching the sun go down on the local education authorities. "I intend to meet the new millennium head-on," he says with the impish grin that may have misled people into thinking of him as "absurdly young".

In reality he has already packed an incredible variety into the 30 years since he first picked up chalk as a primary teacher in Newbury, Berkshire. He now counts among his key skills "the ability to initiate and lead multi-disciplinary working groups in innovative projects in education, the arts, health and social services".

The fountain pen has been replaced by a laptop computer, but to this day he still takes classes in calligraphy, which he developed while teaching handwriting to Year 2 juniors.

His early years as a primary teacher have stood him in good stead and his instincts as a classroom communicator have never left him. The multi-disciplinary and communication skills he learned in the Plowden era, both oral and written, have been refined and developed. It was learner-centred education at its best. He can claim an "ability to relate easily with a wide variety of groups and individuals, in the public voluntary and private sectors" - from pre-school children to peers of the realm, governors and parents, even to senior civil servants.

His secret weapon is his sense of fun and the absurd. "Humour is a very serious business," he says in mock earnestness. "It is a way of lightening meetings and enlightening dull subjects, of defusing tensions and challenging pretensions."

If Waterman had not made his name in administration he might well have made it as a satirist.

One or two key figures guided him along his career path. Joan Dean, the legendary adviser and reading specialist, encouraged the young deputy head to use his talents of analysis and exposition in in-service training.

He learned his LEA administration in the London borough of Hillingdon, where he was appointed by Alan Calderwood, an eccentric Scots chief executive officer with a strict and pedantic approach to budgets, staffing and standards of delivery. But when Calderwood left, it all started to unravel - slashed budgets, sacked teachers, hung council, opting out, chief executive officers coming and going like errand boys. Disillusioned, Waterman left to make a new career in industry - for a Swedish computer company called Aby System.

For two years he played the business executive commuting between London and Stockhom, working as a senior consultant on projects for major companies like Ikea, Tetra Pak and Atlas Copco.

"I learned the latest in computer and management information systems, I worked as a member of a management team. It was a useful discipline," he recalls.

"But at the end of that time I decided that education was my true metier. I had, and still have, many links with Scandinavia - but I returned home."

For the past four years Waterman has been working for the Association of London Government as education and arts officer. This has given him a rare insight into the workings of central government in more than one department.

He has analysed several local government and education Bills going through Parliament, and he wrote the definitive guide to the Schools Standards and Framework Act 1998. The relationships between the London Labour authorities and ministers was often even more "challenging" than those between their Tory predecessors. Here Waterman learned the virtues of patience and discretion - as well as some of the black arts of the spin doctor.

Somehow he found time to practise his skills as an entertainer, putting on the most varied and stimulating SEO conference for many a year in London last summer. He relished taking over from veteran journalist Tudor David the task of producing the late-night cabaret at the annual CLEA conference.

His songs like Oh, Mr Barber, what shall I do? and The Literacy Hour have turned into canons of the informal curriculum in teachers' centres up and down the land. His pen kept active, not only with calligraphic ink, but dipped in satirical gall under the pseudonym Ultra Vires.

He is not pessimistic about the future role of LEAs or that of education officers within them. But he thinks that the society will have to move nimbly to keep abreast of developments such as the National College for School Leadership, the General Teaching Council and the Learning and Skills Council for post-16 education and training.

The society's own Virtual Staff College is already up and running and Waterman believes LEAs should offer something similar to school governors: he is on the editorial board of Governors' Agenda and the management board of the London Leadership Centre.

He is much encouraged by the valedictory words of his predecessor, Andrew Collier, who believes that one at least of the society's tribulations may be at an end.

"LEAs are in the front line," Collier writes in his last editorial. "The regime is tough and the casualties have begun. All in all the SEO is responding heroically and is in good shape, even if the pressures make it harder than ever to create extra space for creative thought and personal development.

"However, I read in the press that '"Blair says Woodhead must go'. So I am going too, happy in the knowledge that you all have a bright future in prospect."

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