'Political animal' overcomes a shy start

14th June 1996 at 01:00
Few would believe that Pauline Latham was so nervous on her first foray into public life that she asked a friend to speak for her. Now, by her own admission, she is a vociferous campaigner for grant-maintained status, and a founder member of almost every body there is for opted-out schools.

And this is the woman whose protests over the proposed closure of the sixth form at her children's school prompted an adjournment debate in the House of Commons, and a TV programme.

But the 48-year-old mother of three's confession of nerves is telling. After failing to get elected as a parent governor at Ecclesbourne school in Duffield, Derbyshire, she took a public speaking course.

Mrs Latham subsequently went on to become chairman of the school's PTA and its governing body, saved its sixth form and was the driving force behind Ecclesbourne going grant-maintained.

Despite her shy start, she is now chairman of the Grant-Maintained Standing Advisory Committee - in essence the mouthpiece for the Government's favourite sector.

Those who have known her for years say she is not prepared to wait for things to happen - she makes them happen. Others describe her as "someone who can be quite fierce and capable of giving you a handbagging".

Her election as chairman of GMSAC, like her time on the Funding Agency for Schools, the quango which deals with the GM sector, has been controversial. For Mrs Latham is viewed by many within the GM movement as too much of a political animal and someone whose impartiality has been questioned.

While a member of the FAS, her husband Derek was offering a consultancy service to help opted-out schools to prepare bids for capital funding.

He ran a firm of architects which sought business from grant-maintained schools and she was member of the FAS finance committee.

Mrs Latham, who has now quit her FAS post, insists: "There never was any conflict of interest - whenever there was a committee which made a decision on capital I withdrew.

"I know that I have many enemies in Derbyshire who would love to do me in and I accept that from the outside it might have looked as though there was a conflict of interest, but there wasn't. I was extremely careful."

She cut her political teeth in Derbyshire where she was Conservative education spokesman and was also a member of Derby City Council. Both seats have since been lost. She was also on the Conservative parliamentary shortlist for Mid-Dorset and Poole North.

Mrs Latham may be just what Brian Mawhinney was thinking of when talking of putting some right-wing oomph behind Gillian Shephard. Certainly those who opposed her election as GMSAC's chairman believe her thoughts and reactions will be coloured by her political beliefs.

Mrs Latham argues otherwise. "I have never been political in school and don't intend to be here."

Robert Dupey, head of Ecclesbourne, bore her out: "The governing body was much more of a political animal when the school was involved with the local authority.

"This is not because the people on the board are of one political persuasion, they are not. But Pauline was very much the leader of a group of individuals seeking consensus."

She replaces Cecil Knight, the head of Small Heath school in Birmingham, who chaired the committee for six years after an invitation from ministers.

Mrs Latham was elected by 13 votes to 11 in a contest between herself and Joan Binder, chair of governors at The Plume school in Maldon, Essex.

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