Denise Stokoe has spent three years directing education for possibly the country's most Blairite council. Susan Young reports
TAKE IT as a compliment or a sly dig, but the achievements of the fledgling Brighton and Hove education authority are often summed up in just four words: "More pilots than Gatwick."
Name any of the Government's numerous education initiatives of the past two years, and more often than not it is enjoying a practice run in what is possibly the country's most Blairite council. As if creating a new local authority were not enough, education action zones, Fresh Start schools, literacy and numeracy hour pilots and more are on the boil.
All this at a time when education has been top of the new Government's agenda - but local authorities have not exactly been flavour of the month.
Denise Stokoe, 46, appointed three years ago when the new authority was being born, has been perhaps the busiest education director in the land. By the time you read this, she will no longer be enjoying the sea views from her office overlooking Hove's beach huts, but will be almost 10 miles up the road in Lewes, running the larger authority of East Sussex - ironically, the shire from which Brighton and Hove was purloined.
What her new schools want to know is whether Ms Stokoe - who manages to be simultaneously imposing and softly-spoken, with spiky hair and dangly earrings - was the mover or the shaken in her first education directorship. Did the impetus for Brighton and Hove's exhausting programme come from the council - whose leader, Steve Bassam, was swiftly made a peer by Tony Blair - or from Ms Stokoe herself?
Ms Stokoe and Brighton and Hove's education chair Frieda Warman-Brown seem to share the credit for the hyperactivity.
"The council here strongly supports the educational agenda of the Government. I think they would want to be seen as the leading authority and to that degree I don't have a conflict between the political view and my view," explains Ms Stokoe diplomatically.
What the pair discovered upon taking delivery of the conurbation's 63 primaries, 10 secondaries and seven special schools was something of a disappointment.
"What we inherited was not as good as we expected," says Mrs Warman-Brown bluntly. "It didn't take very long for us to find out that schools in east Brighton were underperforming compared with other schools in the area and we were below the national average for results. There was complacency there that had to be challenged. Denise was aware she had to keep people on board and work with them. That's where I think it has perhaps been very difficult."
Ms Stokoe is clear she was taken on to improve results - a personal crusade since she spent a year teaching in Portland, Oregon.
"The contrast struck me forcibly: 30 per cent succeeded in England, compared with 90 per cent there."
She returned to her job as "sex and drugs and rock and roll teacher" (more prosaically, sociology, economics and politics) at Hinchingbrooke in Huntingdon and shortly afterwards applied for her first job in administration.
With lots of investment (a pound;90m budget) Brighton's key stage 2 scores rose four percentage points last year, making it the 12th most improved borough. Ms Stokoe takes pride in that, as well as the new education service's strong sense of identity and the quality of the team she has assembled. Such pride, together with her keenness on "leadership" and her neutral phrases (referred to by Warman-Brown jokingly as "officer-speak") suggest a natural administrator.
She has relished the problems of her task at a time when New Labour was getting tough with local government. "We don't feel very loved, I have to say. There's a danger you can get quite demoralised by the lack of confidence in LEAs and the sheer pace of things we have had to deal with.
"We've had to implement the Standards and Framework Act at the same time as working with schools and colleges across services to build relationships and develop things."
Why, then, take on all the extra work of government initiatives? "We believe there are advantages for the services, for children, for the community and we felt it was part of our remit as long as we were being clear about what the issues were." Also, she says, as a small authority Brighton and Hove stood to gain resources.
So why abandon ship now? The timing of the new job seems to be a matter of regret, although Ms Stokoe is adamant that she planned to move on in 18 months or so. "It has been a huge privilege to start something. It's almost like my baby. It's hard to walk away, but I do believe there's a right time to be with a place and the right sort of skills to set something up."
Ms Stokoe sees East Sussex as another challenge. "It's going to be very similar, essentially about enabling the service to improve." Enabling or chivvying? One Brighton head was rather taken aback to be told that it was no longer enough to be a good school: parents wanted specialisms.
She intends to stay in the Hove home she shares with her cat, Jack, for some time to come, enjoying the eccentricities of life in Brighton. But, other than a retirement trip round the States in a Winnebago, she's making no particular plans for the future.
"I don't think I've set out with any particular ambition. I didn't say I want to be a director by a particular time. I am motivated by doing the best I can ... and I have very high expectations of other people too."