New chief of chiefs is bound for the inner city

19th January 1996 at 00:00
Among the signs that the Society of Education Officers is keen to shed its image as a slightly stuffy men's club is the emergence of Heather DuQuesnay, as its president.

The fact that she is the first woman to hold the post says as much about the service - there are only about 20 women running any of the 115 local education authorities - as it does about the society.

Mrs DuQuesnay, as director of education in Hertfordshire for the past five years, is one of a more select group of five women heading a county education service. However, she is about to take on one of the tougher London boroughs - she has been appointed executive education director in Lambeth, the authority with the highest count of failing schools.

As one of the younger, brisker chief education officers, she sets a style that is about accepting the political realities of education management, while setting targets for improving the service. In her presidential address to the society today, she suggests to her colleagues that it is time to stop hankering after a golden age that may never have existed.

The words are perhaps more directed at the old county grandees, who have tended to dominate the SEO, partly because of their larger fiefdoms and the greater access to Government they have enjoyed.

With the creation of one local authority organisation from the merger of the Association of County Councils and Association of Metropolitan Authorities, the county chief officers are less likely to operate as a separate sphere of influence.

According to Mrs DuQuesnay, the days when the SEO was a men's club are long gone. Ways of operating have changed. While the traditional method of selecting a president applied this time round - a name emerged from the SEO council - the next incumbent has been elected by the membership.

David Cracknell, director of education in Cheshire, is the new vice-president, (and automatically next year's president), having polled more votes than Roy Pryke from Kent and Alf Taylor from Doncaster. The result puts an end to the normal practice of alternating the presidency between a chief officer from the county and one from the metropolitans.

The reason the SEO is changing, says Mrs DuQuesnay, is that the service is changing. Chief officers no longer slide into gentle retirement. These days they are appointed on short-term contracts. They pay the price for any perceived failure. Local education officers, she says, have not just survived the difficult years, they have radically changed the way the service is managed. Schools have positively chosen to remain with their local authorities and mainly rejected the option of becoming grant-maintained.

Mrs DuQuesnay, who is always determinedly politically neutral, praises central government for introducing local management, but is critical of the Government's attempts to create a grant-maintained sector.

In her speech, she says it was one policy where central government could not expected mute compliance from local authorities because it represented a denial of their role.

Much of the optimism among chief officers these days, she says, is down to the recognition from Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, that local authorities have a key role in raising standards and improving the effectiveness of schools.

As president she plans to capitalise on the new mood in the profession to have the society play a more active role. There are moves to work more closely with the Standing Conference of Chief Officers - the SEO has a wider membership taking in senior and middle-ranking education administrators.

Her presidential year coincides with the arrival of Andrew Collier, former chief education officer in Lancashire as the SEO's general secretary. There is an intention to examine the SEO's processes to ensure they are open and democratic.

These ambitions are being contemplated as Mrs DuQuesnay exchanges her room with a view of the Hertfordshire countryside for Lambeth town hall, with its panoramic vistas of main street Brixton.

The new job comes with a high salary, in excess of Pounds 74,000, but Mrs DuQuesnay appears to be motivated more by the challenge Lambeth presents. The post includes responsibilities for the overall management of the council and Mrs DuQuesnay wants to expand that area of her experience.

It may also be that having worked only in Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire - though she taught in Birmingham - she wants to demonstrate her ability to tackle the more intractable problems of the inner city.

Lambeth has given her a four-year contract. In Hertfordshire, her contract was for seven years. Mrs DuQuesnay has no qualms about such terms, believing they are useful in concentrating the mind.

Taking on Lambeth and the SEO presidency at the same time might be pushing against the limits of what is possible.

However, the view among chief officers appears to be that if anyone can do it, then Mrs DuQuesnay can.

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